This article was part of a series written for and originally published in the Journal of the Maldon Archaeological & Historical Group – 1994.
PERSONAL THOUGHTS No 3.
– ON SOME OLD BOOKS
Away back in the early years of World War 2, when I was just a young lad and living in Wickford, Essex, my mother, who loved looking around the junk and second-hand stalls in the market there, bought some books for a few pence. Among her many good finds were two bound volumes of “Punch” and a single bound volume of “The London Illustrated News”. All these were from the Victorian period. Although I am now in my mid-sixties, I still have these three books and from time to time they have afforded me much interest. They had been rescued from a war-damaged building somewhere and the two Punch volumes had obviously been well watered. Perhaps from a blitzed and burning building in London? Who knows now.
The dates are 1858-1859 for the Punch books and 1863 (Jan-Jun) for the London Illustrated. So let me tell you as briefly as I can what I find so interesting about them.
I shall start with The London Illustrated. When I first looked through this, I was excited to find articles and reports on scientific lectures given by people who were just historical names to me; news of the civil war in America, social events of the day, etc.
There are features about new industrial processes that are still in use or which have long since been superseded. There are pages of advertisements; the latest fashions, household goods, foods, etc. many by manufacturers and suppliers whose names are still household words. Here are articles and reports on the royal wedding of Prince Albert Edward to Princess Alexandria of Denmark. What a contrast these are to those of a modern royal wedding with worldwide television and film coverage. Then, every picture was first sketched and then engraved before it could be printed.
To give you a taste of the items, I shall quickly look through just one week – the first week of January 1863 and see what I can find.
A report listing many explosions and loss of life at various coal mines throughout the country.
A speech by William Gladstone about the disasters and suffering in the Lancashire cotton mills – referred to often as the “distress in the North”.
Professor Michael Faraday couldn’t give his usual Christmas children’s talks due to ill health.
A report on a recent inspection of the London Underground Railway and the expectation that it would soon be open to the public.
A public sale of the funeral trappings and other miscellaneous equipment left over from the funeral of the Duke of Wellington.
The proposed sites for new bridges over the Thames – at The Tower, near St Paul’s, Temple, New Chelsea and Battersea. It was estimated that their construction would take 6 years.
An account of recent gales with lists of much loss of shipping and fishing boats.
Illustrations (engravings) of the current theatre scenes – plays and pantomimes.
Several pages of small advertisements concerning many articles and services – whisky at 28 shillings a gallon [£1.40 in 1994 money]; the very best quality kid gloves from Paris at 1 shilling a pair [5p]; the appearance of Blondin at the Crystal Palace.
A long editorial about Greece and the many attempts to find a suitable person to take on the duties of a new king.
An article about a great trigonometrical survey of India being led by a certain Colonel Everest.
A long list of proposed new railways and details of their routes.
The visit of the Emperor Napoleon to one of the Rothschild’s chateaux.
Announcement of the discovery of a new metal called Thallium.
The ship “Great Eastern” declared seaworthy again after repairs.
A new parliamentary Act to prevent women and children being employed in the bleaching fields between the hours of 8.0pm and 6.Oam. I thought that this referred to the bleaching of cloth spread out in the sunlight but how could this be at those hours? Perhaps they laid it out at night and hoped for sunshine tomorrow?
There are many items about the “troubles” in the Lancashire mills. Only on reading further did I begin to realise that these Lancashire troubles, the social unrest and the near starvation were partly, if not chiefly, due to the Civil War going on in America. Due to the very successful blockade of the southern states by the Yankees, there was a shortage of raw cotton imported into Lancashire.
And mentioning the Civil War, here also are the weekly dispatches from the war correspondents in the USA; detailed battle reports complete with sketched maps and drawings of armoured ships and battle scenes.
There are many such accounts throughout this book complete with large maps of the battle situations, illustrations of the scenes, of the ironclad gunboats used to blockade the ports of the southern states.
The latest news in January 1863 from “our special correspondent” in America gives a long detailed account of the battle of Fredericksburg with the Generals Burnside, Lee and Jackson involved. During the television series “North and South”, it was interesting to compare the events on the television with the actual reports from the correspondents on the spot.
Then I can read of the social history – the reports of the poor, the statistics of mortality and births. The latest parliamentary events and the financial news from the Stock Exchange; farming news and commodity prices. There are the items on Bridge and Whist, the current sports events. There we see a picture of Epsom Downs on Derby Day and here are illustrations of the ladies wearing the latest Parisian modes.
And now here’s a report with illustrations of “The Volunteers” carrying out a “mock battle” at Southend-on-Sea. There they are, troops landing on the beach in boats (no esplanade road then!) and they are being repelled by other troops up on the rough shrub-covered slopes of Westcliff. There in the background is the pier complete with rows of ships firing towards the shore.
So, what about the two Punch books I mentioned? I think perhaps, because I have only glanced at The London Illustrated and can see so much of interest, Punch will have to wait for a further article from me.
Arthur Cox. March 1994
Note of 2015. These books are now in the possession of my daughter, Isobel Reynolds.
End of section 5
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