Posts Tagged poverty and social conditions

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…)

The Lunacy of English Lunacy Laws

26 February 2011
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Antoine Wiertz. Hunger, madness, crime. Canvas. 1853.

Antoine Wiertz. Hunger, madness, crime. 1853.

As one may suspect, Victorian mental institutions were not, shall we say, the paragons of compassionate good sense and enlightened medical science that they are today. While the days when the practice of psychiatry consisted of scourging out demons were long past, a pauper committed to an asylum may have been subjected to any combination of beatings, neglect, long-term physical constraint, sexual molestation, and myriad other forms of abuse. What may come as a surprise, however, is just how very easy it was to get someone committed.

All that was needed were two certificates of lunacy, which could wrested from any medical practitioner one could dazzle with a shiny yellow sovereign, and the signature of a sympathetic clergyman or magistrate. Probably this was not much more challenging than it is to score a prescription for Adderall today, assuming that it wasn’t Queen Victoria or Benjamin Disraeli that you were trying to certify. “Hysterical” wives, inconvenient heiresses, senile and neurotic relatives were all candidates for easy disposal at the hands of the medical profession.

Once committed, inmates could not be discharged except by the same doctor who signed the original order of incarceration. Friends and relatives were not guaranteed visitation rights. In theory, an inmate was entitled to write to the lunacy commissioners who oversaw conditions in Britain’s asylums. However, according to Ronald Pearsall, there were only ten of these to serve the interests of “106,611 inmates scattered throughout England and Wales,” so one can imagine how worthwhile it must have been to send them letters pleading one’s sanity. In practice, inmates’ contact with the outside world was largely at the pleasure of those who had incarcerated them to begin with. Sanctions against corrupt medical practitioners were, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. (more…)

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