PUNCS Conference 7 March 2015

DSC00688 DSC00568 Literature of the Victorian Age DSC00525


7 March 2015 saw the public launch of PUNCS with a 1-day conference, PlymouthSoundings bringing together members and guests.

Topics ranged from  …  Plymouth Proprietary Library and the prestige associated with establishing this new civic amenity in the context of the Napoleonic Wars … class identities expressed in the ‘dog fancy’ and rabies panic … the reception of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in mid-Victorian Britain … representations of the legal profession and concerns about legal education in the nineteenth-century and today … the gendered aspects to the great Mechanics Institute movement … to matters cosmopolitan in the Cottonian Collection library … and moral regulation in the Three Towns.

More details of the event will follow.


‘Oh Man of Learning!’ (with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury) Victorian Public Education in Matters Legal

Victorian Public Education in Matters Legal

Kim Stevenson

Professor of Socio-Legal History, Plymouth Law School (Faculty of Business)

Needing to Know the Law

With the unremitting expansion of legislation enacted during the nineteenth century together with the prolific development of the common law, the Victorians faced an explosion of legal initiatives that were continually altered and extended: ‘so many new jurisdictions and tribunals have been created during the reign of the present Sovereign’.[1] It became apparent that there was a need for this new body of law to be published and disseminated to the widest possible audience. Ignorance of the law was no defence to a criminal charge and everyday transactions were increasingly regulated by a host of legal rules and requirements. The principle, ignorantia legis non excusa is identifiable in the eighteenth century[2] but hardened substantially in the nineteenth century. The maxim emanated largely from the criminal law[3] but it applied equally to disputes under the civil law including matrimonial suits,[4] breach of contract,[5] and disputed wills.[6] Justice Blackburn confirmed, ‘The rule is that ignorance of the law shall not excuse a man, or relieve him from the consequences of a crime, or from liability upon a contract.’[7]  It was expected that everyone should know the substantive law at least if not the finer points of legal procedure, ‘… it would be too much to hold that ordinary people are bound to know in what particular court such and such a practice does or does not prevail.’[8]

To meet this demand there was an explosion in the numbers of texts, volumes, tracts, treatises and compendiums published on a whole range of legal topics, criminal and civil, which necessitated regular updates as the law continually changed and developed. Most of these publications were written by practising lawyers, primarily ‘barristers-at-law’, often without identification, who sought to not only inform their readership about the law but to educate and advise them on it too. Typically they presented the law and the legal process at a theoretical level that today would be targeted solely at a professional rather than a public readership. There was a keen market demand for such information and a genuine desire on the part of the public to understand the law and its mechanisms and a willingness to engage with it.

The Expansion of Law

Today the creation of law through Acts of Parliament is the political norm but in the nineteenth century the legal revolution was only just beginning, and it was an unknown quantity. The expansion of empire and industrialization, and the shift from individualism to collectivism, precipitated major societal reforms which required formal recognition and authorization. The rise of respectability and associated moral agendas led to reform of the criminal law reinforced by its need for greater police powers and penal strategies. The civil law of obligations (contract and tort) was invoked with the expansionism of manufacturing and trade, and as property rights and interests were dissipated more widely legal protection became increasingly important. Thus the efficacy of the law was fundamental to Victorian society, law’s authority depended largely on public confidence and respect for the legal process, something that in turn depended on the successful education of the masses on matters legal.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the relationship between the law and the general public could hardly be described as one of mutual respect. The enforcement of the criminal law relied on private prosecutions; victims were expected to apprehend and investigate violations perpetrated against them or engage the services of prosecutory societies.[9]  The masses used the law when they could, or at least those parts they knew and could afford, but there was little social consensus about its legitimacy.[10] Inevitably the inherent class bias of the criminal law, and to a greater extent, the civil law, meant that ‘The Law’ was only really available to those wealthy enough to pay for its complexities and inequities. The ‘common’ law denied the common people access to its courts as James Stewart highlighted in an article in 1842 about the need to significantly reform the ‘dark ages’ of the common law:

How can we induce those who are not lawyers to take an interest in the subject we are about to consider?… all laymen look upon it as so fenced up in a labyrinth of unintelligible forms, and wrapped up in a jargon of incomprehensible phrases, that they turn for it at once with nausea and loathing.[11]

Many today would no doubt hold a similar opinion as the law has always tended to shroud itself in mystification.  The development of the parallel jurisdiction of the Courts of Equity mitigated this to an extent with its inherent principles of fairness but the approach was haphazard. However, by the time the two systems were integrated with the reforms of the Judicature Acts 1873-75, and certainly by the end of the Victorian era, the vast bulk of law had become more comprehensible for the greater part of the populace and many had been induced to take an interest in it. So how did the Victorian legal system encourage such popular enthusiasm?

Three key factors provided the catalyst. Firstly, as society became more complex and industrialized there was an increasing realization that the law, more than at any time previously, inevitably intervened in and regulated everyday lives, both personal and professional. Thus people needed to not only ‘know’ the law but know how to engage with it. Secondly, the lawyers themselves needed to maintain a regular supply of clients willing to seek legal advice and engage in litigation in order to economically sustain their practices and lifestyles. To achieve this the law needed to be demystified so that people were less fearful of it. Thirdly, the rise of the print press and immediate conveyance of real-life events, particularly criminal acts and high profile cases, enthused the public’s demand for legal sensationalism and drama epitomized in the literature and theatre of the day.  Law was therefore sensationalized in a way that not only engaged the public but demystified some of its impenetrable and archaic practices. Both directly and indirectly the law and the legal system harnessed these drivers culminating in an extensive legal education programme that the vast majority unwittingly but willingly subscribed too, and one that would bear some comparison at least with the formal study of a range of subjects studied on a law degree today.

Everyman’s own lawyer

From the mid-nineteenth century general household guides and manuals to understanding and using the law started to appear such as Everyman’s Own Lawyer, By a Barrister,[12] What’s the Law? Law for Laymen, A Barrister at Law,[13] Lloyd’s Lawyer Legal advice for all Alphabetically Arranged, A barrister[14] etc.. Written by lawyers, primarily barristers-at-law, these texts contained considerable legal detail and analysis with reference to reported case decisions, statutory provisions and extracts of judicial reasoning. Such publications were intended for a non-professional lay audience. Their authors assumed no prior knowledge on the part of the readership but exposed them to quite difficult and complex legal concepts. The public readily bought and read such texts regarding them as an essential addition to any personal library. The frontispiece of Everyman’s Own Lawyer: A Handbook of the Principles of Law and Equity confirms that it provides the opportunity to everyone to place ‘upon his book-shelves a key to the laws of his country’ providing a reference point on all manners of legal queries.[15] Everyman’s Own Lawyer was a highly popular legal compendium, updated and reprinted annually it ran to its centenary edition in 1962. In their prefaces, these barristers-at-law make no distinction between their legal and non-legal readership asserting that they are writing for everyone but their protestations of not being definitive, exhaustive or learned belie their true legal intellect and egos. As Shirley, author of The Criminal Law confirms:

My object has been simply to give the reader a sketch of those elementary principles of the criminal law and practice with which not only every law student, but every intelligent citizen, ought to be familiarly acquainted.[16]

The author of Everyman’s Own Lawyer assures us that in:

…the pages of this little Treatise…[he]… has been careful to make the work intelligible to all, [as] concise as possible; consistent with the view of producing, at the smallest cost, a complete Epitome of the Laws of England.[17]

Shirley also cites Mr Justice Foster’s preface to Discourses on Crown Law: ‘The learning touching these subjects is a matter of great and universal comment. It merits for reasons to obvious to be enlarged on, the attention of every man living’ and expresses his ‘surprise and regret’ that the principles of criminal law are not taught in ‘our public schools and other educational establishments’.[18] Harris in Before Trial: What Should be done by Client Solicitor and Counsel confirms,

I am not writing for lawyers only, but for all ranks and conditions of men who may  have occasion to employ them …. It is pretty obvious that my book is intended for  a large number of readers

He goes on to acknowledge that ‘the more accessible the law is the more will clients benefit by it, and the more will lawyers benefit by clients…’[19] a premise that perhaps  modern lawyers should consider?

Of course, barristers and solicitors had a vested interest in the public engaging with the law as their livelihoods and salaries depended on the public seeking their advice. The cover page of Everyman’s Own Lawyer proclaims, ‘No more lawyer’s bills! Six-and-eightpence saved at every consultancy’ reinforcing the tome’s objective of enabling individuals ‘to help themselves to the law’ without needing to seek out, or pay for, professional legal assistance and advice.[20] The author is clearly seeking to protect his own interests albeit acknowledging that legal, like medical, advice is a necessary evil. Feeding off public concerns about the perception of overpaid and ‘wealthy’ lawyers he justifies his own position, as does a similar publication No More Lawyer’s Bills,[21] both of which are dismissive of their solicitor colleagues reassuring readers that it is they who in fact will be deprived of their fees.

What every respectable middle class paterfamilias needed to know

As the entrepreneurial spirit infiltrated the middle classes and their domestic households became micro employment empires so their legal responsibilities and liabilities increased. Letts Household Guide to Family and Civic Rights, Duties and Responsibilities provides pertinent legal advice on all ‘domestic and social interests’ including matrimony, children, master and servant relationships, landlord and tenant and payment of rates and taxes.[22] Not only did the paterfamilias need to know his legal position in respect of his employees, domestic and professional, but increasingly this was extended beyond the confines of the home as the Householder’s Legal Rights and Duties with Respect to his Neighbours, the Public and the State[23] indicates. And if he needed to instigate any legal proceedings or understand how the court process worked he could read the useful articles published regularly in Cassell’s Saturday Journal such as ‘How it is Done: A County Court’ and ‘How it is Done: in the London Law Courts.[24] As a truly respectable pillar of society he would, of course, be unlikely to need Reforms to Marriage and Lawful Wedlock or Husband and Wife, and the Married Women’s Property Act, 1882 with its detailed discussion on this major Act and its implications. With, perhaps, relations posted abroad or lofty ambitions, he might have been interested in the expansion of empire and colonialism as explained in Colonial Criminal Law,[25] or Colonial Laws and Courts,[26] either of which would have been used by interested colonial layman or new magistrates to the colonies. Or for a broader cultural understanding of the impact of English law, Cases Illustrative of Oriental Life and the Application of English Law to India[27] or The History and Constitution of the Courts and Legislative Authorities in India – a series of lectures intended for Indian and British readerships.[28]

The print press also played a significant role in keeping the public up to date on legislative developments.  The Daily Telegraph maintained a regular item under the byline ‘New laws’ summarizing the key provisions of recently enacted statutes and detailing their changes and impact upon existing legislation. Such information could be broadcast very quickly. For example, on 1 January 1875 the paper informed its readership about the implementation of three newly enacted provisions: the Prosecution of Offences Act, Summary Jurisdiction Act and Habitual Drunkards Act, as well as alerting it readers to the repeal of the Juvenile Offenders Act. The next day readers were reminded about the immediate operation of the Summary Jurisdiction Act as the newspaper explained that a case had been dismissed by Bow Street magistrates on New Year’s day because the statute had already come into force and transferred their jurisdiction to the police court (Daily Telegraph 1 January; 2 January). Not only is this a pretty impressive and instantaneous feat even by today’s electronic delivery standards but it also highlights the level of detail the public received in terms of the procedural aspects of the law. Five years later, in relation to the sentencing provisions of juveniles under the Act, the Pall Mall Gazette commented that the ‘Home Office appears to have misinterpreted the Summary Jurisdiction Act on this point, but fortunately it has the means of setting itself right by a short Act the next session (Pall Mall Gazette, 14 September 1880), Thus not only did the media inform and educate the public but gave itself the authority to educate the politicians too.

And for further reading and delectation…

The public were encouraged to read not just textbooks on the law but also legal journals. In its first issue, The Law, a Monthly Magazine of Legal Matters for the Profession and the Public Conducted by Members of the Bar, stresses that it will deal with ‘legal topics in a way to interest both the profession and the public.’ This not only demonstrates the desire on the part of legal practitioners to engage with the public but an expectation that as potential or actual clients members of the public will have some general understanding of the legal issue confronting them. The editorial reassures the lay readership that its writers ‘will appeal to them as intelligent members of a community deeply interested in the laws under which they live’ confirming that the law – however complex and complicated, can be made accessible without the modern need to ‘dumb it down’ but hinting indirectly that they have no choice but to be ‘interested’ in embracing the law and follow it as a necessary obligation. Specialist features appeared each month focusing on specific issues such as advising traders on aspects of commercial law. [29] The First edition covers a wide range of subjects from notes on the current status of Parliamentary Bills including the Assaults Bill and Sale of Food and Drugs Bill; an article on the Law for the Punishment of Drunkenness, to commentaries on the reform of the jury system and costs in county courts. Interestingly these are all live issues today but it is unlikely that many members of the intelligentsia would seek to read about them in the equivalent legal journals of the Bar and Law Society such as the Law Society Gazette, Solicitor’s Journal or Counsel.  Periodicals generally, both those aimed at more elite or educated reading audiences such as The Fortnightly Review, or Nineteenth Century, and those with a more popular readership, such as Cassell’s Saturday Journal or Windsor Magazine, also regularly featured articles on criminal matters for example. In addition, specialist publications such as the Justice of the Peace mulled over particular cases and pronouncements of magistrates, judges and barristers.

The Victorians realized that for law to be properly understood it needs to be contextualized, and offered as a form of ‘edutainment’. Further educational comment was transmitted in a less overt way via works of non-fiction including memoirs and biographies. Many lawyers and judges kept journals throughout their legal lives and would invariably share their legal experiences and reminiscences through autobiographical collections,[30] updated editions[31]  sketches and anecdotes. Novels and short stories where narratives involved criminal or murder mysteries, and featuring outlines of police work and trial scenes, were another means of indirectly promoting and engaging the public in legal issues and scenarios offering ordinary advice about often everyday and mundane affairs. Popular ‘sensation’ novelists like Mrs Henry Wood and  Wilkie Collins detailed depictions of court scenes and how the police operated to explain the ordinary process of the law with a very high degree of accuracy. It was possible, in the pages of such works, to recognize figures or plot lines in real cause célèbres such as the Constance Kent murder, but much of the detail reflected the workings of the summary courts and the more ‘usual’ ways in which readers might be engaged with the law. Dickens, a former solicitor’s clerk cum journalist, in his preface to Bleak House assures us that everything that takes place in the Court of Chancery is ‘substantially true, and within the truth’ citing an ongoing case in August 1853 that had been running for 20 years, involved some  30-40 counsel, and incurred costs of over £70,000. Thus the Victorian public could know what to expect when they encountered the legal process; such ordinariness can be starkly contrasted with today’s more ‘extraordinary’ crime fiction of complex and complicated scenarios invariably involving murder, which was and remains a relatively rare crime in comparison to burglary and other theft, or lesser forms of criminal violence. Bringing this short survey back to the beginning, is former barrister W.S. Gilbert’s libretti from the popular operetta Trial by Jury and his engaging commentary on the law and its procedures in relation to Angelina’s action for breach of promise against Edwin –  Legal ‘edutainment’ at its informative best .

Kim Stevenson, Plymouth University


[1] Everyman’s Own Lawyer: A Handbook of the Principles of Law and Equity by a Barrister (London: Crosby Lockwood 1880) p.v.

[2] Jones v Randall (1774) Lofft. 384 Per Lord Mansfield

[3] R v Bailey (1800) R & R 1.

[4] Noble v Noble and Godman (1869) 1 P&D 691.

[5] Waugh v Morris (1873) 8 QB 202.

[6] Lemage v Goodban and Others [1861-1873] All ER 1364.

[7] The Queen v The Mayor, Aldermen, and Burgesses of Tewkesbury (1868) 3 QB 629.

[8] Martindale v Falkner (1846) 2 CB 706 per Justice Maule.

[9] See D. Hay and F. Snyder, Policing and Prosecution in Britain 1750-1850 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

[10] D. Hay, ‘Prosecution and Power,’ in Hay and Snyder eds., Policing and Prosecution in Britain 1750-1850 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) pp.394-395.

[11] J. Stewart, ‘Recent and Future Law Reforms’, no.76 Westminster Review (London, 1843).

[12] Everyman’s Own Lawyer (London: Crosby Lockwood, 1880),

[13] What’s the Law? Law for Laymen (London: George Routledge, c.1910).

[14] Lloyd’s Lawyer Legal advice for all Alphabetically Arranged (London: Edward Lloyd,c.1910).

[15] Everyman’s Own Lawyer (London: Crosby Lockwood, 1880).

[16] W. Shirley Shirley, A Sketch of the Criminal law, (2nd ed London: Stevens and sons, 1889) p.v.

[17] Everyman’s Own Lawyer, p.vi.

[18] Shirley, A Sketch of the Criminal law  p.v.

[19] Richard Harris, Before Trial: What Should be done by Client Solicitor and Counsel (London: Waterlow bros and Layton,1886).

[20] Everyman’s Own Lawyer, p.v.

[21] No More Lawyer’s Bills (London: Crosby Lockwood & Son, 1893).

[22] W. A. Holdsworth, Letts Household Guide to Family and Civic Rights, Duties and Responsibilities advertised  in the Illustrated London News 15 Feb 1873 p.151; also see The Laws of England and the Practice of Parliament relating to Marriage and Divorce (London: G. J. Palmer, 1854. )

[23] J. A. Slater Barrister at Law, Householder’s Legal Rights and Duties with Respect to his Neighbours, the Public and the State  (Pitman’s Modern Library of Practical Information c.1904).

[24] As published in Cassell’s Saturday Journal Oct-Sept 1888-9 pp.436-7; pp.920-921; pp.122-34

[25] Clarkson Tredgold, Handbook of Colonial Criminal Law, being a Compendium of the Common and Statute Law of the Cape of Good Hope with Regard to Crimes, and of the Procedure Incident thereto ( Cape Town: C. Juta & Co, 1897).

[26] A. Wood Renton & George, Colonial Laws and Courts, with a sketch of the legal systems of the world and tables of conditions of appeal to the Privy Council (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1907).

[27] Erskine Perry, Cases Illustrative of Oriental Life and the Application of English Law to India (London: Sweet & Maxwell,1853).

[28] Herbert Cowell, The History and Constitution of the Courts and Legislative Authorities in India, (London & Bombay: Thacker Spink & Co.,1894).

[29] Preface vol 1 (Nov.1874-April 1875) (London: Lockwood & Co).

[30] Richard Harris KC ed. The Reminscences of Sir Henry Hawkins, Baron Brampton  (London: Thos. Nelson and Sons, 1909); Superintendent Bent, Criminal Life, Reminiscences of 42 years as a Police officer (Manchester: John Heywood,1892); Alfred Chicele Plowden, Grain or Chaff, The Autobiography of a Police Magistrate (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903); Edmund Purcell, 40 Years at the Criminal Bar. Experiences and Impressions (London, T. Fisher Unwin,1916).

[31] Mr. Serjeant Ballantyne, The Old World and the New. Being a Continuation of his Experiences. (London: Richard Bentley & Sons, 1884); Montagu Williams,  Leaves of a Life, being the Reminiscences of Montagu Williams (London: Macmillan, 1890); Later Leaves, being the Further Reminiscences of Montagu Williams (London: Macmillan, 1891); Mr. Serjeant Robinson, Bench and Bar Reminiscences of One of the Last of an Ancient Race (3rd ed Containing a Series of Further Reminiscences (London: Hurst and Bracket, 1891).

Victorian Attitudes and Modernist Offences: Egon Schiele and the Female Nude

Is it not a crying shame that pictures are flaunted before the public from the pencil of male and female artists which must lead many visitors to the gallery to turn from them in disgust and cause only timid half glances to be cast at the paintings hanging close by, however excellent they may be, lest it should be supposed the spectator is looking at that which revolts his or her sense of decency?

‘A Woman’s Plea’, The Times, 20 May 1885, quoted in Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art,  Manchester University Press, 1996, p.1.

So wrote a ‘British Matron’, in a letter in The Times published 20 May 1885, and published at the beginning of Alison Smith’s The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art (1996). Many scholars have been interested in the Victorian response to the naked female form in art: whether it be the later critical response to the nudes of the Regency-era William Etty in England, or Anthony Comstock and the ‘New York Society for the Suppression of Vice’ having an art dealer arrested in 1887 for the sale of photographs reproducing French paintings of female nudes (see Nicola Beisel, ‘Morals versus Art: Censorship, The Politics of Interpretation, and the Victorian Nude’), or the association between ‘nakedness and the colonial imagination’. In 2001 Tate Britain presented an exhibition entitled ‘Exposed: The Victorian Nude’, with an accompanying catalogue by Alison Smith.

… But what would that British Matron have made of the portfolio of prints which was associated with the arrest of Karl Grunwald, an art dealer and friend of the Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele (1890 – 1918), in 1923?

Dr Gemma Blackshaw,  Associate Professor of Art History at Plymouth University and one of our PUNCS founder members, is delivering a talk on the images of nudes created at the end of our period, by Schiele, at the Freud Museum, London (11 November 2014).

Gemma Blackshaw’s research on Schiele’s work in the context of debates on art and pornography – in which she reclaims the artist’s graphic work for pornography rather than the nude of high art – will be published later this month in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude at the Courtauld Gallery London (23 October  – 18 January 2015). Schiele gained public notoriety for ‘immoral’ work, in the small Austrian towns where he settled in poverty in 1911-1912, after making his reputation as a painter in Vienna.

The research contributing to the exhibition has also been covered in the national press: Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s essay, ‘The naked truth: when does art become pornography?’ (The Times, 20 September 2014) notes scandals involving the representation of the female nude that fall within the period of interest to PUNCS: the furore around Edouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1863): ‘startling’ for a writer in the British Pall Mall Gazette in 1872; a ‘coarse and rudimentary subject’ for another writer in the British press the year after his death in 1883, and acknowledged by 1895 as a ‘masterpiece’ in the Art Journal … and the suffragette Mary Richardson’s attack on Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus (‘caring more for Justice than for Art’  as she later told a Judge) in the National Gallery in London in March 1914.




‘The National Gallery Outrage’, The Times, 11 March 1914

C.G. Trumbull, Anthony Comstock, Fighter: Some Impressions of a Lifetime Adventure in Conflict with the Powers of Evil (1913)


C. Lewis Hind, ‘Velasquez in Yorkshire’, Pall Mall Gazette, October 1905


Camille Mauclair, ‘Edouard Manet’, Art Journal, September 1895, p.278.

Arthur Baigneres, ‘Manet and the French Impressionist School’, The National Review, 3: 13, March 1884, p.39

D.M. Bennett, Anthony Comstock: his career of cruelty and crime; a chapter from The champions of the Church (1878)

‘The Society of French Artists’, Pall Mall Gazette, 8 March 1872.Sarah Burnage, Mark Hallet and Laura Turner, William Etty: Art and Controversy (2011)
Nicola Beisel, ‘Morals Versus Art: Censorship, The Politics of Interpretation, and the Victorian Nude’, American Sociological Review 58: 2 (April 1993), pp.145-16
Philippa Levine, ‘Nakedness and the Colonial Imagination’, Victorian Studies 50: 2 (winter 2008), pp.189-219

Napoleon and Plymouth: an approaching anniversary


Napoleon on board the Bellerophon, 1815, from the painting by Charles Eastlake.

That the conqueror of nations should be the guest and the prisoner of a captain in the British navy appeared to many a kind of illusion, which fancy could not realize. Plymouth, and its environs, were crowded with company, eager to behold the person of one whom they had so long dreaded.

 E.P. Brenton, The naval history of Great Britain: from the year MDCCLXXXIII to MDCCCXXI (London: Rice, 1825), p.215

Here, in the memory of living men the Bellerophon, carrying Napoleon, the devastator of a hundred cities, dropped her anchor, and remained for days an object of deep interest to myriads of spectators, who thronged around her in open boats; while the mighty conqueror who walked her decks a prisoner, was despoiled of his titles, stripped of his power, and consigned to a lone isle in the far Atlantic, from which he was destined never to return.

Evangelical Magazine, July 1861, p.487.

IN A previous posting on PUNCS, the ship HMS Bellerophon – a third-rate ship of the line launched in Kent in 1786 – figured in the context of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin’s early career.

But the Bellerophon has another Plymouth connection which deserves to be highlighted as we approach its two hundred year anniversary in July 2015: the famous encounter in Plymouth Sound between Britons local and distant, and the defeated Napoleon, on board the Bellerophon under Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland.

This ‘sublime spectacle … the object of boundless curiosity’ (Hewson Clarke, An Impartial History), was an event that inspired artists such as Joseph Turner (whose vignette, The Bellerophon, Plymouth Sound, was engraved by Edward Goodall and published in 1835 in Sir Walter Scott’s Miscellaneous Prose Works), and Charles Lock Eastlake (later Sir Charles, and President of the Royal Academy), born in Plymouth, whose name was made by the large-scale painting (ten feet high, it was reported) exhibited in London in 1815 and reproduced in an engraving by Charles Turner. A version was displayed at the Devonshire seat of Lord Clinton. The Annals of the Fine Arts described the work, when it was publicly exhibited in a room near the White Bear in Piccadilly, thus:

The principal figure, Bonaparte is painted the size of life, as he frequently appeared at the gangway of the Bellerophon, when lying off Plymouth last July. He is painted in his usual attitude, dress, and decorations, holding in his right hand an opera-glass, with which he occasionally surveyed the surrounding multitude. Behind him on his right, is the Polish General Count Piontkowski, who rendered himself noticed by his attachment to his master, and who afterwards, at his own request, was allowed to join his fallen fortunes. – During his stay, he sat to Mr Eastlake for his portrait. On the other side is Count Bertrand, in profile. Near him is a marine on guard; and in front of Bonaparte, a few steps down the side of the vessel, is a sailor removing the side-ropes, to prevent the people in the boats from pulling themselves up. The unconquered British Ensign forms a part of the back ground.

Annals of the Fine Arts 1: 1 (London, 1817), p.91.

One copy is in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery has a version copied by John Harris the Younger (1791 – 1873), another scene was painted by the Swiss-born artist John James Chalon (1778 – 1854) in 1816 and is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. Portraits of the ‘hero of Europe’ were ‘published almost immediately after his arrival’, from a drawing by Nicholas Louis Planat de la Faye, his private secretary. His departure from Bellerophon to HMS Northumberland off Plymouth, on 7 August, was also depicted by artists (e.g., Thomas Butterworth, and Thomas Luny).

The Plymouth episode even formed an argument in one Anglican theologian’s ingenious argument for the existence of God against sceptics: when Richard Whately’s anonymous pamphlet Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte (1819) considered the …

testimony of those many respectable persons who went to Plymouth on purpose and saw Buonaparte with their own eyes? must they not trust their senses? I would not disparage either the eye-sight or the veracity of these gentlemen. I am ready to allow that they went to Plymouth for the purpose of seeing Buonaparte; nay more, that they actually rowed out into the harbour in a boat, and came along side of a man-of-war, on whose deck they saw a man in a cocked hat, who, they were told, was Buonaparte; this is the utmost point to which their testimony goes; how they ascertained that this man in the cocked hat had gone through all the marvellous and romantic adventures with which we have so long been amused, we are not told: did they perceive in his physiognomy his true name and authentic history?

 Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte (1819), p.22

Local and national accounts indicate the tremendous interest in catching a glimpse of the great enemy – sailing towards Torbay on 24 July, Maitland had been instructed to permit no communication with the shore and had therefore kept a distance of three leagues from the shore, and prevented any boats from attempting to go alongside (see ‘Buonopartiana’, Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1815, p.517). Nevertheless, local gentlemen had made contact with the ship, it seems – Octavian Blewitt’s The Panorama of Torbay later recalled ‘presents of fruit were sent on board from the Tor Abbey Gardens [owned by the Cary family]; and these generous attentions of an English gentleman, whose estates were often menaced by his invading fleet were fully appreciated by the fallen Emperor’. But in Plymouth Sound after the ship’s arrival on Wednesday 26 July, this attempt at quarantine, despite the telegraphed orders from the mainland, became impossible.

On the ship’s arrival, we are told, ‘the garrison, the Hoe, and other elevated positions, soon became crowded with curious spectators’ (Monthly Magazine, 1 September 1815, p.172). The ship anchored in the sound at 3 pm.

The noisy sightseers arrived in a ‘prodigious number’ according to the New Monthly Magazine, but ‘as all access to the ship was strictly prohibited he occasionally gratified the spectators in thousands of surrounding boats by exhibiting himself from the stern gallery’. One estimate of the ship-borne crowds was ten thousand (Monthly Magazine, 1 September 1815, p.172).

Edward Seymour’s History of the Wars noted the people came, ‘regardless of expence or even of personal safety’. Hewson Clarke’s Impartial History claimed that at one time some thousand vessels were in the Sound, the scene beggaring all description. Guard boats and frigates were in operation to intimidate and discourage the boats from coming too close.

George Home, a midshipman aboard the Bellerophon, recounted the spectacle:

The Sound was literally covered with boats; the weather was delightful; the ladies looked as gay as butterflies; bands of music in several of the boats played favourite French airs, to attract, if possible the Emperor’s attention, that they might get a sight of him, which, when effected they went off, blessing themselves that they had been so fortunate.

       All this did not escape the eagle eye of Napoleon, and he shewed no disinclination to gratify the eager spectators, by frequently appearing at the gangway, examining the crowd with his pocket-glass, and frequently, as a pretty face gazed at him, with bewitching curiosity, he shewed his fine white teeth, lifted the little three cocked hat nearly off his broad and commanding forehead, for he never wholly uncovered, bowed and smiled with evident satisfaction.

 Memoirs of an Aristocrat, and Reminiscences of the Emperor Napoleon (Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1837), p.243.

Home also recalled the violent incident of heavy boats from the dockyards colliding with spectators’ boats and yachts as these rushed towards the sight of the Corsican on the starboard gangway or through the quarter ports – the tell tale sign of the Emperor’s appearance being the uncovering of officers’ heads as he arrived on deck. Edward Pelham Brenton described ships which were so closely packed together around the Bellerophon that it appeared like a stage ‘of some acres’ (The Naval History of Great Britain, p.215). Others attempted to spy on the ship’s inhabitants from the Breakwater.

The episode has been recounted before: the defeated Emperor’s demeanour, his entourage, and the behaviour and memories of the British officers. It was hardly surprising given his great fame and notoriety, that he should become ‘the great object of public curiosity’, whose movements aboard the ship should be the subject of public knowledge – appearing around five o’clock in view of the boats of sightseers, which included local inhabitants and men and women from across England. Napoleon seemed willing to gratify their curiosity, and some privileged spectators got close enough (according to Hewson Clarke) to hear his speech and see his features clearly.

The press, for example, published some of the fragments of Napoleon’s correspondence that had been collected by one eager sightseer from the city of Bath, the silk mercer Mr Mulligan, after the ex-Emperor had been observed tearing up papers and throwing them from a cabin window. The handling of the ex-imperial linen was even reported, thus the Plymouth Telegraph carried news of the ‘sheets of exquisite texture and bordered with lace more than a half a yard in breadth’ sent to Plymouth for washing. Newspapers were fascinated by his appearance, comparing what they reported as being seen in the flesh, with the likenesses otherwise available to the public: thus one unidentified London newspaper reprinted the account of a gentleman arrived in town, who had been an eyewitness:

He is the greater part of the day in the stern-gallery, either walking backwards and forwards, with his hands behind him, as he is represented in some of the pictures in the print-shops, or surveying the shipping and the shore through a glass.

 C. Kelly, A Full and Circumstantial Account of the Memorable Battle of Waterloo: The Second Restoration of Louis XVIII; and the Deportation of Napoleon Buonaparte to the Island of St. Helena, and Every Recent Particular Relative to His Conduct and Mode of Life in His Exile. Together with an Interesting Account of the Affairs of France and the Biographical Sketches of the Most Distinguished Waterloo Heroes. Embellished with Engravings (London: Rider and Weed, 1817) p.263


Kelly’s work included an engraving of Napoleon on the deck of the Bellerophon, surveying the row boats of spectators on a choppy Sound (a copy may be seen on the British Museum online collection site).

The public were told various reasons for the departure of the Bellerophon and its dangerous cargo: ‘The concourse of boats in Plymouth Sound and the loss of some lives which had already taken place induced the government to remove the Bellerophon to a greater distance’ according to one account; others emphasised the subpoena obtained by a man with a cause in the Court of King’s bench, who had wanted evidence from Napoleon and his brother Jerome (Gentleman’s Magazine), whilst some mistakenly believed the departure was to evade a writ of habeas corpus (see the correction offered in Cobbett’s Political Register).

The incident was troubling for many beyond the government, no doubt: the New Monthly Magazine saw the affair in the light of freak shows (of non-European physiognomies, and celebrated men of vast or restricted size), and other exhibits of natural wonders or remarkable physical feats:

Those who are tenacious of the national dignity may wish that so strong an interest had not been manifested towards the most inveterate foe that we ever had to contend with; but in England, which might be called the country of sights, curiosity is too powerful a motive to be repressed, be the object of it a hanging or a boxing match an odd fish or an odd man a Borulawski or a Lambert, a Hottentot Venus, or a Buonaparte.

New Monthly Magazine, 1 September 1815, p.464

This hardly seemed an exaggeration of the fascination and the determination – from ‘all ranks’ it was noted – to witness the ‘first general of the age’, the ‘most extraordinary man of modern times’  and ‘disturber of the world’. There was a desire, however unlikely of being gratified (given the efforts to ensure the boats were kept some distance away), to catch sight of the real man in home waters, as it were and then to hold on to this association by purchasing copies of the likeness of the man who had terrorised Europe and had been defeated by the might of the British Empire, as he had appeared on board the Bellerophon. There was, for example, a locally exhibited mezzotint portrait (from Robert Lefèvre’s painting, in fact this had been previously displayed on board the Bellerophon) which was accompanied with testimonials from Captain Maitland himself as to the authenticity (Exeter Flying Post, 21 September 1815).

What did the visitors think they were witnessing? What were their emotions, on seeing Napoleon in England (gazing through his glass at Mount Edgecumbe)?  According to one newspaper correspondent, despite the efforts of the press to create a sense of odium towards him, ‘by retailing all the vulgar trash of the ministerial prints’, the mood seemed to be more celebratory: ‘the cheerings and acclamations became so general, that the ships were afterwards removed to a greater distance’, we are told by one correspondent (Monthly Magazine, 1 September 1815, p.172). According to another,

Government may issue orders to treat Bonaparte as a mere general, but there is a spontaneous respect shewn to him by all ranks, which no orders can take away … there are no clappings, no cheers, but a thousand hats are silently waving in the air. It is courtesy – it is sympathy – it is the involuntary homage which men so naturally pay to him who has performed great and memorable actions.

Correspondent, The Packet, reprinted in Caledonian Mercury, 5 August 1815

It must have been a highly profitable time for owners of boats and barges in Plymouth! Colourful, noisy, even dangerous (for the press reported various injuries and fatalities caused by the attraction, see for instance the death of two ladies as the ex-emperor was transferred to the Northumberland, 7 August, reported in the Morning Post, 11 August 1815), this short period in late July and early August 1815, not surprisingly, became one of the notable modern events for nineteenth-century Plymouth and Torbay guide books to recall, and an incident to remember in the pages of the Victorian Western Antiquary.

On the north side of the Victorian Plymouth Guildhall, one of its fourteen four-light windows commemorated the event too, depicting in stained glass the emperor as prisoner on the Bellerophon (see Western Antiquary, December 1882, p.185; see also articles in the Antiquary in 1887).  Artists were drawn to the incident long after: the Scottish artist Sir William Quiller Orchardson exhibited a picture on the theme in 1880 (and subsequently engraved by J.C. Armytage), and the Frenchman Jules Girardet’s busy rendition of the incident was acquired by Plymouth City Council in 1909.


James Gregory, 4 October 2014



Annals of the Fine Arts

Caledonian Mercury

Cobbett’s Political register

Evangelical Magazine

Exeter Flying Post

Gentleman’s Magazine

Morning Post

New Monthly Magazine

Western Antiquary

O. Blewitt, Panorama of Torbay: a descriptive and historical sketch of the district comprised between the Dart and Teign (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1837)

Edward P. Brenton, The naval history of Great Britain: from the year MDCCLXXXIII to MDCCCXXI (London: Rice, 1825)

Hewson Clarke, An Impartial History of the naval, military and political events in Europe from the commencement of the French revolution to the … conclusion of a general peace (Bungay: Brightly and Childs, 1815)

George Home, Memoirs of an Aristocrat, and Reminiscences of the Emperor Napoleon (Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1837)

C. Kelly, A Full and Circumstantial Account of the Memorable Battle of Waterloo: The Second Restoration of Louis XVIII; and the Deportation of Napoleon Buonaparte to the Island of St. Helena, and Every Recent Particular Relative to His Conduct and Mode of Life in His Exile. Together with an Interesting Account of the Affairs of France and the Biographical Sketches of the Most Distinguished Waterloo Heroes. Embellished with Engravings (London: Rider and Weed, 1817)

Edward Seymour, History of the Wars resulting from the French Revolution (London: 1815)

Richard Whately, Historic Doubts relative to Napoleon Bonaparte (London: Hatchard, 1819)


Links and further reading

Sir F.L. Maitland, Narrative of the surrender of Buonaparte and of his residence on board H.M.S. Bellerophon; with a detail of the principal events … between 24th May and 8th August 1815.

C.K. Shorter, Napoleon and his fellow travellers: being a reprint of certain narratives of the voyages of the dethroned emperor on the Bellerophon and the Northumberland to exile in St. Helena (1908) archive.org

D. Cordingly, Billy Ruffian: the Bellerophon and the downfall of Napoleon: the biography of a ship of the line, 1782-1836 (London: Bloomsbury, 2003).

J. Dechamps, ‘Napoléon à Plymouth et l’ordonnance d’habeus corpus du Lord Chief Justice d’Angleterre’, Bulletin de la classe des lettres et des sciences morales et politiques, Académe Royal Belgique 5th ser., 41:3-4 (1955) 145-54


Victoria Smith, ‘Eastlake and Napoleon’, 31 October 2102, http://www.plymouth.gov.uk/eastlake_and_napoleon.pdf

Charles Lock Eastlake, ‘Napoleon Bonaparte on Board the ‘Bellerophon’ in Plymouth Sound’, 1815


J.J. Chalon, ‘Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815: The ‘Bellerophon’ with Napoleon Aboard at Plymouth’


‘The Bellerophon, Plymouth Sound’ (Vignette), engraved by E. Goodall, published 1836


Jules Girardet, ‘Napoleon in Plymouth Sound, August 1815 (Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon at Plymouth)’


Plymouth, Devon, and the Search for Sir John Franklin

Plymouth, Devon, and the Search for Sir John Franklin

WITH THE NEWS that the shipwreck lying in 11 metres of water in Victoria Strait, previously tentatively identified as the HMS Erebus, is indeed the Erebus, one of the two ill-fated ships (with HMS Terror) that carried 138 men on the Arctic expedition of survey and discovery under the command of Sir John Franklin in 1845, PUNCS presents some of the aspects of the search for the truth, linked to Plymouth and the wider South West region – through printed sources such as the local newspapers. The mystery of Franklin’s fate fascinated the Victorians.

The Davy shipyards at Topsham on the River Exe in Devonshire, had actually been the birthplace of HMS Terror in 1813, a ship which had first served as a bomb-ketch (her icebound fate on an earlier Arctic expedition was depicted in a painting by Edward William Cooke, ARA, which was exhibited at the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic at Falmouth in 1860). Plymouth’s connections with Franklin himself maybe slight – as signal-midshipman, he was on board the Bellerophon on its return from the Battle of Trafalgar at Plymouth in late 1805; and reports from one of his earlier polar expeditions of scientific discovery had been read to the savants at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Plymouth in 1841.

It’s not surprising that Plymouth Dockyard provided a port for repairs, and departure point, for a number of ships involved in some of the early searches that followed Franklin’s disappearance. News too arrived at Plymouth about the expedition’s possible fate. Thus the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported on 3 May 1850 that the story of Franklin’s safety, ‘which reached Plymouth via Hong Kong, on Wednesday, is believed to be without foundation’; Exeter Plymouth Gazette published as ‘local news’ in May 1852, ‘from a private letter, that yesterday … the Admiralty received a telegraphic announcement from France’ that Franklin had been found; and the local newspapers (as elsewhere), carried correspondence and commentary on Franklin, for instance the letter from ‘Humanitas’ published in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 October 1852). In 1850 Exeter inhabitants could see ‘The Search for Sir John Franklin’, an image that had first been exhibited in a panoramic display of the Arctic, by the artist Alfred Adams (‘artist to M. Soyer’) in London:




(From the Royal Gallery of Illustration, Haymarket,


Hamilton’s Grand Moving Panorama of

The Arctic Regions

 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 23 November 1850, see also 7 December 1850 and 14 December)

The discovery ship Plover, which joined Sir James Clark Ross’s expedition, was repaired in Plymouth before setting out for the Behring Straits on 30 January 1848. The Literary Gazette instructed its readers: ‘to those who may have friends in Sir John Franklin’s expedition, to whom they may wish to have letters conveyed, that they must send them under cover to Lieut. Moore, of her Majesty’s ship Plover, Plymouth …’ (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 7 January 1848).

The two ships Enterprise (under Captain Richard Collinson) and Investigator (under Captain Robert J.L.M. McClure), which had been part of the expedition under Ross, were towed from Greenhithe to Devonport and sailed from Plymouth on 20 January 1850 – the Enterprise was forced back by the ice, north east of the Behring Strait, but returned to the search in 1851. The following was reported in late January 1850 (Sherborne Mercury, and other newspapers):

PLYMOUTH, Jan.20 –The Enterprise, Capt. Collison. and Investigator, Commander M’Clure, tripped their anchors inside the breakwater this morning, at eight o’clock, under their two topsails, jib and spanker, and left the Sound by the western channel, the Commodore being in advance to the westward. Outside they hove to, to receive letters and secure their ground tackle, after which they hoisted top gallantsails and foresails, and having a spanking breeze from north east, direct fair wind, were soon out of sight. In the absence of Mr, William Walker, Queen’s Harbour master, who on Admiralty leave, Mr. Davey, Second Master Attendant, piloted expedition out of the harbour. On departure the officers and crews were in excellent spirits, and full of hope of finding the long lost Sir John Franklin, by which they will obtain a well merited promotion.

While in the Sound the upper deck of the Enterprise was caulked, and her topgallant yard was sent ashore and repaired. From the Royal William Victualling Yard thirteen ions of preserved meat were despatched on Thursday, and from the dockyard there have been forwarded soldering and solder for repairing leaks in the tin cases of preserved meat, pumps for clearing the ships’ holds foul air, a great quantity of leather hoses, small cordage, &c. From the Gun Wharf they have received some patent aerial telegraphs for use in the Arctic regions, by which exploring parties detached from the ships in different directions may communicate with each other or with the ships. The gins made at the dockyard and sent on board on Friday are described as being composed of iron somewhat in the shape of bulbous inverted cone, the point of which is of hardened steel, made very sharp. This instrument, which weighs 141b. or 151b., is attached by a teakle and fall to the outer end of the bowsprit, and, being worked on the ship’s deck, is allowed to drop suddenly on the ice, which it will penetrate when of ordinary thickness, and thus clear passage for the ship.

From Plymouth, the expedition sails direct to Valparaiso, where fresh provisions will be obtained. Thence it crosses the Equator, and proceeds to Sandwich Island, where the Commodore will wait instructions from the Admiralty at home, prior to joining the Plover brig which is to accompany the Investigator and Enterprise to Behring’s Strait, and assist in the prosecution of their perilous adventure.

The Plymouth Times carried news of the Enterprise and Investigator’s ‘Ice Masters’, men skilled and experienced in arctic navigation, and other details of the expedition (Exeter Flying Post, 31 January 1850). Local subscriptions were raised to support Lady Franklin’s private efforts to locate her husband, such as the fund established by the Exeter Gazette in 1851 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 26 April 1851). Local papers relayed Captain Frances Leopold McClintock’s news, from the screw discovery vessel Fox, about the record left by Captains Crozier and Fitzjames and dated 25 April 1848, which had been discovered in a tin box at Point Victory, on the north west coast of King William’s Island, concerning Franklin’s death in June 1847 and the abandonment of the two ships, in 1859 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 September 1859).

By the late 1850s and 1860s, with credible evidence of the death of Franklin and the crew in the form of artefacts and reports via the Inuit, the search for the Erebus and Terror had become the subject for local lectures, for instance the Reverend William Scoresby’s ‘highly interesting lecture’ to a crowded audience at the Natural History Society in Torquay in January 1855 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 20 January 1855); and one given at Dawlish (a penny reading by Dr Baker, South Devon Gazette, 29 November 1861).

The Western Times in 1906 published news of the death of one local link with these Victorian endeavours to seek evidence about the fate of Franklin and his men – Joseph Worth, apparently quartermaster on the Herald which had searched for Franklin in 1854-55 (so the paper stated: the Herald had also been searching for Franklin with the Plover after 1848), dying at Plymouth at the age of 81.

James Gregory, 2 October 2014



Augustus Petermann, Historical summary of the search for Sir John Franklin (London: J.E. Taylor, 1853), p.11.

Sir John Richardson, Arctic searching expedition. A journal of a boat-voyage through Rupert’s Land and the Arctic Sea, in search of the discovery ships under command of Sir John Franklin (New York: Harper Brothers, 1852), p.24.

The Athenaeum, 24 September 1859, pp.398-399.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 7 January 1848

Sherborne Mercury, 26 January 1850

Exeter Flying Post, 17 January 1850

Exeter Flying Post, 31 January 1850

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 23 November 1850

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 26 April 1851

Exeter Plymouth Gazette, 22 May 1852

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 October 1852

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 20 January 1855

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 September 1859

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 21 September 1860

Western Times, 8 March 1906

The Illustrated London News, 13 May 1848 carried engravings of the Enterprise and Investigator.

On H.M.S. Terror, see


See also: ‘HMS Terror, 9 months in the Ice of Frozen Strait, under the command of Captain, now Rear Admiral Sir George Back, April, 1836-7’, museum catalogue, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge,


The Far East meets the South West: Nineteenth-Century Discussions of Japan in the South West: The Newspaper Evidence

DSC00682   DSC00635   DSC00631   DSC00639

DSC00700     DSC00684     DSC00636     DSC00644

The Japan 400 Festival in Plymouth, England, in September 2014 celebrates and explores the connection between Plymouth and Japan, a connection which was recalled in Britain in the nineteenth-century as new relations were forced upon the Japanese by the Western powers (William Dalton’s Will Adams, the First Englishman in Japan. A Romantic Biography was published in 1861 – the crew of the Clove had overwintered in Plymouth in 1614).

What would the reader of the Plymouth and Devon newspapers have known about the Japanese in the late nineteenth century? Digitisation of the provincial newspapers is not complete, which would render the question an easier one to answer in terms of a complete view of the coverage in editorials, correspondence and news. But it is clear that the literate Devonian would have gained information about Japan and the Japanese through the course of the nineteenth-century via material in national journals and magazines such as the mid-nineteenth century Daily News, or the late-Victorian Strand Magazine, reports in the local press, through access to volumes in commercial and public libraries (thus the Plymouth Public Library had the seventeenth-century François Caron’s Account of Japan, and Engelbert Kempfer’s History of Japan in the volumes of John Pinkerton’s Collection of Travels and Voyages of 1808), and through local activities (educational or amusements) which promised a tangible connection to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. What follows is a brief research note, drawing principally on the evidence of the local press, using the West Country (and largely the papers of Plymouth and Exeter) as a case study of Victorian British understanding of ‘Japan and the Japanese’.[i]

The Japan of the Victorians – very different from the reality, no doubt – addressed many needs and interests. For Christian missionaries, for example, tales of uncorrupted heathen morality might be set against the corruptions of intemperate Christians, thus one clergyman at a meeting of the Gospel Propagation Society, John Fielder Mackarness of Honiton, ‘an out and out tractarian’, was reported in the Western Times in late 1858, noting that ‘the romantic tale of the opening up of Japan, which had recently so surprised the western world … make many almost wish themselves Japanese’, but questioning the reality of ‘extraordinary morality and … obedience to natural religion’, feared the impact of ‘our holy, Christian civilization in the shape of the offscourings of Plymouth, and Liverpool, and Wapping’ (WT, 4 December 1858, p.7).

Interestingly, the early visitors to Britain from Japan did take in nineteenth-century Plymouth: Okada Setsuzo visiting the town (and Portsmouth) from London, and noting some of his experiences in his diary (Andrew Cobbing, The Japanese Discovery of Victorian Britain: early Travel Encounters in The Far West, 2013, p.70). Another brief visitor was the ‘Japanese Robinson Crusoe’, Zen’chiro Oyabe, 1867‒1941, (1898; A Japanese Robinson Crusoe, Honolulu, Los Angeles: University of Hawaii Press, 2009), who spent a Sabbath at St Andrew’s church, visited the castle and other sites, including places associated with the Pilgrim Fathers, and mystifying some of the natives by a perfect command of English acquired during his time living in the United States.

In its function as the reporter of international news, certainly, the papers reproduced events in Japanese foreign policy and domestic affairs in sections of ‘foreign intelligence’ for instance. Items from national newspapers and journals, generally entitled ‘Japan and the Japanese,’ reappeared throughout the period, from 1859 onwards (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 28 January 1859, reproducing an article from the Journal des Débats; and the North Devon Journal, reproducing an article in Daily News, 5 September 1872). Consular news appeared in the 1860s: the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette publishing the report of Consul Charles A. Winchester at Shanghai, on the ‘considerable increase in shipping’ with Kanagawa, from 1862 to 1863 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, hereafter EPG, 26 August 1864, p.10).

Speculation about the rise to economic and maritime power of the nation, also appeared, as this article from the Western Morning News of 2 May 1894 indicates.

Although little more than two years old, the Japan Society can boast the possession of no fewer than 555 members. Of these a goodly number, together with many visitors, attended the society’s meeting last evening, when very interesting paper on Aspects of Social Life in Modern Japan was read by the Ven. Archdeacon Shaw, chaplain to the British Legation at Tokio. The lecturer drew special attention to the patriotism of the Japanese and their respect for ceremonial authority, and expressed the opinion that it was chiefly in order increase the position and power of their country that the people had taken readily to the customs of Western civilisation. In the course of an interesting discussion which followed the reading of the paper, a Japanese speaker declared that the young Japan party desired not only gain for their country approximation to Western culture, but even a place among the great Powers of the world.

Readers of Consular reports cannot fail to be struck, with the general, and unfortunately well-deserved reproaches brought by our represent abroad against British exporters of neglecting even the most ready and inexpensive means of conveying to foreign customers adequate information regarding our manufactures. This is in marked contrast to the energy displayed by the Germans, who avail themselves of practically every known resource to develop their foreign trade. I am pleased to note that far at least Japan is concerned, journalism has come to the aid of the British manufacturer. There is published in London, but printed almost entirely, even to its advertisements, in the Japanese language and character, a trade organ, which serves to enlighten the people of Japan as to British industries, and especially engineering, machinery, and tools. As a result of the special attention paid to the needs of Japanese customers, British exporters find far less competition in that country from the Germans and Americans than formerly prevailed.

But Englishmen must not be too cock-a-whoop even as regards trade with Japan, for the time may come for even the Mikado to challenge our supremacy of the sea. I see it announced that the Austrian Lloyd Steamship Company is about to reduce its tariff for goods, and increase the number of its vessels, in order to meet the competition of a Japanese Company trading between Kobe and Trieste. The shrinkage of the world is going on merrily. What would have been thought a few years ago of Japanese steamers competing with those of a European nation? Such an idea would have been regarded as a flight of fancy equal to Macaulay’s picture of the New Zealander sitting on the ruins of London Bridge.

 Western Morning News, 2 May 1894, p.4.

Concern in that year about British economic interests in Shanghai were reported in the paper, drawing on the impression created by consular reports, impressed by the ‘phenomenal’ progress in industry: ‘Japan threatens to become one of the most formidable rivals of England and India in the Eastern markets’ (WMN, 7 August 1894, p.4) – driving out Lancashire from the Chinese market for manufactured cottons, and if Sino-Japanese conflict damaged Japanese trade it was only predicted to be short-lived.

Another important way by which ‘knowledge’ of the Japanese was conveyed to the locality, and indeed with the promise of witnessing the Japanese at close quarters, performing one of the arts for which they had already acquired fame, was the visit to West Country towns, by ‘real’ Japanese acrobats. This happened on a number of occasions.

In Exeter, the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette advertised (14 May 1869, p.4):



Two Nights Only, Tuesday and Wednesday, May

18th and 19th. Mid-Day Performance Wednesday at 2.30.



Patron – H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh.

WONDERFUL  and astounding Feats, never

 before witnessed in this City — TOP SPINNING

EXTRAORDINARY FEATS OF ARCHERY, GRAND CONCERT by the JAPANESE LADIES, BALANCING, EGG SPINNING, YEDDO FLY WHEEL; this Feat is one of the most surprising attempted, the performer turning Somersaults on the Points of Sharp Swords, with frightful rapidity; BUTTERFLY FANNING, TWENTY MINUTES IN JAPAN, illustrated by the Troupe, showing the Fashions and Customs of this so little known nation. To conclude with the TEMPLE OF MIKADO.

The Proprietor begs to say this is the only Troupe of Real Japanese in England, and shortly returns to Japan.

   Prices : ‒ 3s., 2s., 1s., and 6d.  Children half-price.

Schools by Special Arrangement.  Photographs of the Troupe at Mr VINNICOMB’S, where Tickets can be obtained. Open at 7.30; commences at 8. Carriages at 10.

From a comment elsewhere it seems they must have drawn a good crowd as Manley of the English Opera Company in residence at the Theatre Royal hoped better houses would happen after they left (EPG, 21 May 1869, p.5). They had already performed their feats in London and other places and, as the advertisement claimed, were the ‘only Real Japanese in England, and shortly returns to Japan.’ In June the Japanese troupe, owned by the New Jersey-born Professor Risley (Richard Risley Carlisle, 1814–1874) entertained the crowds with balancing and top-spinning at the Royal Public Rooms, the note in the EPG in 18 June judging the ‘description and illustrations of Japanese manners and customs’ to be ‘very amusing’ (and entertained children of the Charity School at one of the performances, see Exeter Flying Post, 9 June 1869, p.5).[ii] Yet the troupe had its rival: in the same paper, 3 December 1869, it was claimed that the Imperial Japanese Troupe, which had performed at the International Exposition at Paris, performing at the recently built Victoria Hall, in Queen Street, were ‘the original and superior troupe. The party that visited Exeter a few months ago were very amusing, and they performed some remarkable tricks, but they are wholly cast into the shade by the Imperial Troupe.’ The dexterity and cleverness of adults balancing bamboo objects, and a ‘nimble little Japanese boy’ also doing his tricks, astounded the reporter (EPG, 3 December 1869, p.5). The Japanese troupes also visited Torquay, Bideford and Barnstaple, and toured Cornwall, in this year.

The EPG advertised the final appearance that year of the Imperial Japanese Troupe:



POSITIVELY for Two Nights only—Tuesday

and Wednesday, Dec.21 and 22, of PROFESSOR



Consisting of Twelve Male and Female Performers, and the

world renowned


And, in order that all may have an opportunity of witness-

ing the marvellous Feats performed by these extraordinary


suit all classes.

Admission—Reserved Seats, 2s.; Second Seats, 1s.;

Back Seats, 6d. Reserved Seats maybe secured and Tickets

obtained, Mrs. Piper’s, 241. High Street. Children to

the First and Second Seats, Half-price.

     Now that the talents of these Artistes are well known in  this city, it hoped that they will receive that patronage their merits deserve on this their Farewell Visit.

      Doors open at 7.30, to commence at 8 o’clock precisely.

      Remember ! Wednesday, Dec. 22. Is most positively

their last appearance this city.

(EPG, 17 Dec 1869, p1)

A rival troupe of Japanese was also advertised in the next decade, the Dutchman Frank Tannaker-Buhacrosan’s Japanese troupe appearing briefly at the Royal Public Rooms in Exeter (EPG, 7 December 1872, p.2).[iii] The troupe’s performance was described as ‘novel and pleasing’ (EPG, 2 December 1872).  Again, the newspapers were amazed by the agility and skill of the Japanese, the EPG, commenting that ‘their wonderful exhibitions of physical agility are beyond anything Northerners can attempt’ (EPG, 12 December 1872, p.2). But the troupe’s use of a child acrobat proved controversial (the controversy taking place after the failure of a bill promoted by social reformers such as Lord Shaftesbury, concerning child acrobats) however, with the appearance in Exeter police court of Tannaker-Buhacrosan, summoned for ‘assaulting and ill-using’ his son Johnny, at their lodgings, when he refused to learn his lessons (locking him in a cupboard with bread and water), his hands tied up with the buckles used to secure his travelling rug, ‘was approaching crucifixion’, in the view of the mayor. ‘The Bench, however, exceedingly regretted that a child so young and so delicate should be put through these exercises, and this was a case which he thought the defendant —whatever might be the … in his country—would find was not allowed in England.’ (EPG, 17 December 1872, p.3). He was fined ten sovereigns, the EPG commenting:

We cannot profess to gauge the value to the public of seeing a child perched inside a tub, on the top of half-a-dozen other tubs, placed one upon another upon the soles of a supine acrobat, but we have a notion that it scarcely counterbalances the wickedness of imprisoning a four-year-old infant in a cupboard for ten consecutive hours …

EPG 17 Dec 1872

Six years elapsed before the return of the troupe (or rather, a new troupe with only two of the original members) for a week at the Victoria Hall, reported thus in Western Times, 16 November 1878: ‘The performances are altogether of an extraordinary kind, and such — notwithstanding that we have many clever acrobats among our own countrymen — to show us that we have still much to learn in that direction.’ The performers included ‘Little Allright’ going through his series of evolutions at the summit of a pole balanced on a shoulder. The extraordinary sight of a ‘Japanese priest’ mounting ladder whose rungs were made of sword blades, was also reported, the performer, ‘the only [priest] who has been allowed to leave his country up to the present time ; he is further said to be a spiritualist and a “wonder worker,” …’ If there was applause, no doubt the audience’s appreciation was also strengthened, by the presentation of gifts, ‘all of Japanese workmanship, as was the practice of the Troupe  elsewhere, and the gifts included fishing rods, cabinets, trays, workboxes, fans, umbrellas, and numberless small articles to every patron’.




Day Representations,


next, at 3.




IS a novel and wonderful Entertainment, excelling any previous representations.


    The Proprietor, in thanking the Public for their

support upon previous occasions, begs to state that

having received Consignments of One-and-a-half Million JAPANESE ARTICLES ! and, as a Memento of this

visit, his Manager will present to each patron a


Consisting of large Cabinets, Glove Boxes, Tables, Trays, Papier-Mache Dolls, Fans, Umbrellas, Ivories, Musical Instruments, Mechanical Spiders, Magnetic Fishes,

Bamboo Cups, China Ware, Fishing Rods, Silk Balls, and

100 other Novelties, all the handicraft of Japanese Work-

men, and Manufactured in Japan.

Every Person Receives a Gift at Each Entertainment.

Doors open at 7.15, to commence at Eight. Prices ‒

3s, 2s, Is, also 6d.   Children half-price, except 6d.

Tickets at Mrs. D. Smith’s, Queen-street.

WT, 19 Nov 1878

The visit appeared to be successful, for the press reported ‘a large share of public patronage, the Hall having been filled nightly.’ (WT, 22 November 1878, p.5). It returned in the next decade, taking up residency at the Royal Public Rooms in June 1889 (EPG, 18 June 1889, p.3) and even having the names of some of the performers reported in the papers such as Chiyokitchee (on the wire rope), Conda Jorra (with a great tub) and juggling and balancing by Odratersan and Gintarro. There was also the attraction of ‘quaint dancing and posturing’ by Japanese ladies: and illustration of life and customs in the Land of the Rising Sun, including ‘marriage, christening, burial, dress and decoration, tea growing, and manufactures.’ The troupe was also to be found entertaining inmates at Wonford Asylum, Exminster Asylum and the City the Workhouse.










under the distinguished patronage of



Colonel FREMANTLE and OFFICERS of the


Lieutenant-Colonel GARDINER and OFFICERS of



Day Performance, Saturday, at 3.


Prices: 2s, Is, and 6d. Children Half-price, except 6d.

EPG 14 Feb 1889, p.1

In 1895 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported the entertainment of Gilbert’s ‘modern’ circus, which included the celebrity Blondin (‘A Real Treat, and 71 Years of Age’) and ‘the Tycoon Troupe of Japanese jugglers – at Victoria Hall in Exeter, advertised as ‘direct form Japan’. Their feats of balancing and jugglery almost defy description’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 16 April 1895, p.5; p.1). Japanese men were exhibited in the Edwardian period too: ‘a number of genuine Japanese soldiers’ being included among the exhibits at the Exhibition Fields at Pennycomequick, in Colonel Cody’s (Buffalo Bill) show in June 1904 (see WMN, 3 June 1904, cited in Derek Tait, Plymouth from Old Photographs, Amberley Publishing, 2014).

The acrobatic performances had been enhanced by the distribution of Japanese commodities. One did not need to attend these shows, however, to buy those goods which had previously been out of reach of middle-class Devonians. Real Japanese goods were advertised by Davis of the High Street (EPG, 13 December 1878), Hodges of Cowick Street in Exeter in the same year (Western Times, 17 December 1878), and real Japanese hand-painted folding fans in 1882 (EPG 4 August 1882). Hodges’ consignment included vases and dishes in porcelain, enamel ware, bronzes, lanterns, ‘jumping frogs’ and silk balls. The exoticism of Japanese art and export wares is apparent in the reporting of the Christmas display of one Barnstaple firm, Walter Herbert of Cross Street, upholsterer and cabinet maker, in 1891. Hibbert was an agent for Liberty’s of London: the shop windows were decorated with ‘Japanese, Indian, and Chinese novelties which give the bazaar an Oriental character’. The wares included ‘Satsuma, Banko, Seto, Shippo, Imado, and in jars, bowls, dishes, teapots, scent jars, vases, &c.’

There are Japanese and Schoo-Schoo gongs, bamboo furniture, Japanese carpets and rings, dining mats, Japanese brocades and prints, Ceylon baskets, Chinese embroideries, and the now much-sought-after Japanese bead curtains of bamboo, rush, and beads of various sizes, suitable for gentlemen’s smoking-rooms, they absorb the smoke. Rice curtains also form an effective decoration. The natural palm leaf and the Japanese productions in the shape of birds, reptiles, and animals are numerous. When lit at night the shop has a most attractive appearance. The examples of bamboo panelling with cretonne, &c., are worthy inspection, useful as they are for walls of rooms or studios.


EPG, 19 December 1891, p.6.

In Plymouth one could buy Japanese silks and the perfect novelty of Yeddo Japanese stripes, from Spearman and Spearman of George Street (West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 1 May 1873). Spooner and Co retailed Japanese short blinds, rice curtains and reed curtains, in 1894 (WMN, 11 June 1894), and also rugs and mats (WMN, 21 August 1894). The regard for Japanese art and artistry was well developed by this period. Locally, echoes of Japanese culture would appear through reports of performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885) – a military band on Plymouth Pier for example, presenting a selection in June 1894 (WMN, 7 June 1894). Lorna, in a review of the Mikado for EPG 14 November 1895, could make the comment that ‘any dealing with Japan and the Japanese lends itself to lavish displays of rich colouring’: by this period, the Japanese style had become a familiar decorative backdrop.

Devonians were presented with a mysterious culture: a land almost unknown to the West, through Major Frederick Brine’s lecture at the Royal Clarence Hotel Assembly Rooms in January 1867. Brine, R.E., K.T.S., A.I.C.E., and member of the China Club Committee, was a former Commandant of the Hong Kong Volunteers (and was shortly to set off with a detachment of the Royal Engineers for India). Brine claimed during the lecture that ‘every custom there was contrary to what it was here’ – white for mourning, for example:

In the East everything went contrary to our ideas in the West. Consequently, were we to try to govern China or Japan except in Chinese ways, the probabilities were that we would fail. The Japanese were so peculiar in themselves that they could not see that could improve their position, and they had shown from the first a disposition to manage their own affairs in their own way.

EPG, 11 January 1867, p.6

Brine said that there had been a travelling show at Sidmouth which purported to display ‘Ainus’, members of the so-called hairy race – they had proved to be Irishmen in costume.

They were very treacherous, and it would do no harm to give them a wholesome lesson if they did not behave as they should. However, we should not endeavour too quickly to force our western ideas down the throats of an eastern people.

The audience for this lecture, introduced by the mayor, R.T. Head, was small due to the poor weather, but how many more will have read this assertion of British imperial arrogance and ignorance? Brine, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, had also delivered a lecture on the same theme, seemingly to a larger audience, at the town hall in Ottery St Mary (EPG, 23 November 1866).

Brine’s lectures were not alone, several others were reported in the Devon press in the late Victorian period, ranging from lantern slide illustrated talks by ministers of religion (thus the Wesleyans of Bideford, in North Devon Journal, 21 November 1895; Bradninch parish room, by the Reverend E.E. Atherton, EPG, 30 November 1897), to more learned talks. In addition to the reports of acrobatic performances, the retailing of Japanese goods, and the notices of lectures in the West Country, the newspapers also published correspondence on Japan by those who could claim to have the expertise of years spent in the mysterious Far East. Thus ‘Nipon’ wrote a series of letters for the Exeter Flying Post in 1871, ‘drawn from the experience of an eight years’ residence in that country’, of which period, two years were spent ‘in the interior, where foreigners had never set foot before, and was thereby compelled to acquire the language of the country and a thorough knowledge of the curious manners and customs of one of the most interesting peoples of the world’ (EFP, 6 September 1871). The letters gave a resumé of modern Japanese history, characterised the Japanese physiognomy and relations between the sexes, and extolled the politeness and refinement of the population. Details of the cities and towns, domestic homes, ‘strange customs and usages’ (including punishments) and religious practices, appeared, with a sprinkling of Japanese phrases. There was one effort to link the Japanese to the West Country in the shared love of wrestling (EFP, 4 September 1871), and there a discussion of the Japanese artistry in gymnastic performances. The letters ended with a poem about the writer’s situation, ‘the only stranger in that strange land’ – recalling his years spent at Itosaki.

Another figure who could claim to have knowledge at first hand, of Japanese culture, who lived at some point in this region, was the Irishman Charles J.W. Pfoundes (1840 – 1907), ‘late of Tokio’, who lectured and wrote on the subject (see his ‘Notes on the History of Eastern Adventures, Exploration, and Discovery, and Foreign Intercourse with Japan’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 1: 10, April 1880, pp.82-92). Pfoundes, in fact, ‘headed a Buddhist mission in London’ from 1889-1892 (see the research by Laurence Cox, Brian Bocking and Yoshinaga Shin’ichi[iv]).

In January 1881 he lectured on the art and artists of Old Japan before the Exeter Literary Society at the Athenaeum, drawing on his residency in Japan of thirteen years (from 1863), which gave him a mass of material to illustrate his talk with (‘native drawings, photographs, art ware &c’). Pfoundes had been a captain on the coast of China and Siam too:

He has made a study of the social life, customs, literature, language, art, and poetry of Japan. His publications evince the fruit of long research and intimacy with the country, and give agreeable information upon the religious, moral, intellectual, and political condition of the people. He was the first to direct attention to the meaning of Japanese art, and has now become a missionary for the propagation of it.

Pfoundes’ response to the cultural exchange in Anglo-Japanese art was interesting:

Japanese art was not the jumble of gorgeous monstrosities they were considered to be, but … on the contrary, every line had its meaning, every curve was an expression, and every dot tended to complete the idea which the artist had undertaken to elaborate. As fitting supplement to our higher and more aesthetic realisation of classic art, Japanese art, colour and design might be made to teach a useful lesion. He regretted much to see the Japanese efforts to copy English art, and he rejoiced at the failures in England to copy Japanese art.

 EPG, 28 January 1881

Sir Samuel White Baker (1821‒1893), the African explorer, who had stayed in Japan and was interested in the role that Japan would play in Russo-British rivalry, was also a West Country based enthusiast for Japanese culture, and loaned items from his collection to an exhibition at Newton Abbott (he had purchased an estate at nearby Sandford Orleigh in 1874, the staircase of the house was decorated with weapons and armour including Japanese mail-armour). His lecture at Newton Abbott on the ‘Art Industries of Japan’, which drew on his own tour of porcelain and bronze manufacturing in Yokohama in 1881 (by which point, as he complained in a private letter, a great deal of trash was being produced for the English and American markets, see Samuel Baker. A Memoir, Macmillan, 1895), claimed:

The Japanese were gifted with peculiar perception of the beautiful, and lighthearted and gay, they approached the French impulsive character, and like that highly-gifted European nation, they excelled in the beauty and originality of design

Western Times, 21 April 1882

No doubt other associations between the Japanese and Devonians might be found – such as the ‘Cunninghams formerly of Kobe’ living at Sec Tor outside Axminster (John K. Cunningham), and visited by Sir Ernest Satow, British Minister in Tokyo (1895 – 1900), in 1897 (I. Ruxton, ed., The Diaries of Sir Ernest Satow, British Minister in Tokyo (1895-1900): A Diplomat Returns to Japan, p.200).

Those interested in Japan, from the evidence of the local press, included the connoisseurs of Japanese culture, the missionaries eager to open up a new field of gospel work (see EPG, 23 April 1897 for the sale of Japanese curios in aid of the missions in Japan), and those engaged in work that took them to the Japanese archipelago, whether this was commerce or plant collecting, as in the letter from the plantsman John Gould Veitch, of the Chelsea and Exeter Nurseries, who sent letters to be published in the Gardener’s Chronicle (published 1860 – 1862; see North Devon Journal, 30 January 1862). It would be interesting to know what those non-genteel visitors to Japan in this period, soldiers such as those members of the East Devon Regiment (her majesty’s 20th (2nd battalion) made of their experiences (alluded to in one of ‘Nipon’s’ letters in EFP, 13 September 1871). Early reports had demonstrated a fascination with the Japanese as an oriental culture which was clearly in advance of the West in many aspects, as the leading evangelical paper, The Recorder noted in an essay reprinted in the North Devon Journal (1 December 1864), it was a remarkable country which had enjoyed a comparatively high state of civilisation when the Britons were little better than painted savages, or ‘wandering freebooters and savages’ – and for artistry in  textiles, porcelain, enamelling and other work, unparalleled. Japanese was imagined as a land of ‘paradoxes and anomalies’ for this essayist, and for other writers, the opposite of the West in many ways. By the late nineteenth century, as British newspapers such as the Bristol Mercury (4 May 1898) noted, the provision of information was something which the Japanese government took a keen interest in, the Bureau of Commerce of the Department of Agriculture and Commerce giving information to foreign visitors and merchants, printing handbooks, for example.

Ominous of less happier relations too, was the news of the Japanese destroyer, Inadsuma, arriving at Dartmouth to take in coal on her way from London to Japan (Western Times, 28 April 1899). The previous decade had seen the double turreted ram cruiser Tsukushi putting into Plymouth Sound for coal and water en route for Yohokama from Newcastle (purchased from Armstrong, Mitchell and Co.) Western Daily Press, 16 July 1883). And earlier still, the EPG, 5 July 1878 had commented (ending with that figure of the Macaulayan future traveller, which we have seen quoted earlier):

For several days a Japanese gun-boat has been lying in Plymouth Sound. From a British seaman point of view, she is a strange looking craft, not unlike one of those uncouth screw steamers which trade coals. But I dare say the Japs—her officers and crew—regard her with complacency. It speaks something for the land of the Mikado to have not only a navy of its own, but men and officers so superior to the traditions of their Celestial neighbours as to conduct a voyage to distant England. As my North Devon readers may not have had an opportunity of seeing a Japanese man-of-war crew for themselves, I may be permitted to say that the sailors are quite ship-shape. It has long been the fashion in Yokohama to copy British fashions, and the Japanese Admiralty have carried it to the extent of rigging up their sailors on the model of Jack Tar.  If you mixed English and Japanese crews up together, it would be ready difficult to pick out the Japs at glance, they are not very dark, and some of our blue-jackets are quite as brown as the Mikado’s seamen. But if you walk behind a Japanese sailor the deception will be found still more complete: the hat flat aback, the capacious collar, the flapping trousers, the fine old roll—all are there the very beau ideal of successful imitation. On the whole, looking to the Japanese seamen, I am inclined to say that the prospective occupant of London Bridge is a Jap, not a Maori, the emphatic assertion of Lord Macaulay to the contrary notwithstanding.

James Gregory,

University of Plymouth , September 2014



[i]        See M. Conte-Helm, Japan and the North East of England: From 1862 to the Present Day (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), for a more extended study in relations between a region in England, and Japan.

[ii]       See F.L. Schodt, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan–and Japan to the West (Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2012).

[iii]       See B. Pearse and C. McCooey, Companion to Japanese Britain and Ireland (Brighton: In Print, 1991), p.165.

[iv]       See the abstract to ‘The Forgotten First London Buddhist Mission, 1889-1892: Charles J W Pfoundes and the Kaigai Senkyôkai’, http://www.soas.ac.uk/csjr/events/12dec2013-the-forgotten-first-london-buddhist-mission-1889-1892-charles-j-w-pfoundes-and-the-kaigai-.html. See also B. Bocking, ‘Charles Pfoundes and Annie Besant: a clash of Irish esoteric Buddhisms in Victorian London’,  http://www.music.ucc.ie/drama/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/web-version-Charles-Pfoundes-and-Annie-Besant-Brian-Bocking-2014.pdf

Plymouth University Nineteenth Century Studies: But why the Nineteenth Century?

Plymouth University Nineteenth Century Studies: But why the Nineteenth Century?

In establishing a research group at Plymouth University, organised under the title of the ‘Nineteenth Century’, there was some pause for thought about terminal dates and whether members would happily congregate under the title of ‘nineteenth century’ or require something like the ‘long nineteenth-century’: how far back into the eighteenth-century or forwards into the next century should we go? This posting, by one of the members of the group who is a historian, was stimulated by this quandary.

Windsor Magazine 1908, two Windsor Magazine, 1908




IF we had reason to consider the beginning of the present year as the commencement of a new century, we should introduce it with retrospective remarks on the principal events by which the preceding age was distinguished, and on the benefits or disadvantages which attended the general state of society in that period; and we should also be inclined to hazard some speculations on the probable changes which the ensuing century may exhibit in the affairs of Europe or of the world, in religion and morals, in the institutions of policy, in the mechanical and refined arts, in order and civilisation, and in the grand features of distinction which elevate the human species above the brute creation. Reflexions on such topics may be expected by some of our readers, perhaps by many; for, in the chronological controversy which has been lately agitated, the supporter of the opinion that we are now in the nineteenth century have been numerous and determined.

Critical Review 28, January‒April 1800, pp.573‒574

… from some circumstances which have rendered the close of this century a matter of no common anxiety. And so far I own: that I do not much wonder at the wish of considering ourselves fairly out of it. Still, whatever hurry we may be in so to consider ourselves, the pace or quality of events will not depend, for us, or for the rest of Europe and of Mankind, on such consideration. In whatever century we are, we must look for its true colour, and our expectations, from wisdom, fortitude, and benevolence, and a sincere and rational piety; not from the circumstance of whether the year ends or begins a century.

Capel Lofft, Monthly Mirror, February 1800, p.86


Periodisation is a vexed matter for historians – why should we chop up the past into centuries, or into monarchical reigns, and what terminal dates should we follow or be constrained by in our textbooks, and in our analyses? Journals are founded for researchers specialising in a particular age – scholarly journals for History and English Literature exist with ‘the eighteenth century’ or ‘twentieth century’ prominently figuring in their title. At the same time as we appear in these academic journal titles, to stick rigidly to the framework of a century, new chronologies of continuity and change emerge, to permit the birth of such ideas as the ‘long nineteenth-century’ or the ‘short twentieth century’.

Historians might have the habit of making claims for their preferred period in history as particularly significant. But when did the idea of a ‘nineteenth century’ as something markedly different or special, emerge? When did people commonly start discussing their era as ‘the nineteenth century’? (In England, John Corry published a work entitled A satirical view of London at the commencement of the nineteenth century, by an observer in 1801). This may seem an odd set of questions, but for a research group of academics who specialise in, among other things, themes in the nineteenth-century, it is interesting to interrogate contemporaries’ understanding of their age, and how they used the concept of ‘the nineteenth century’. It has been claimed that the period was, ‘by general agreement … the Age of History. Its culture was a historical culture … [h]istory permeated literature and the arts’.[i] But it was also fixated about its present.


The nineteenth-century discourse of the ‘nineteenth century’

Is it not folly for us to pay even the slightest respect to antiquity. Yes, folly most consummate, but fortunately not very common. They were but helpless babes in science, we are as giants; they had no steamboats, no railroads, no printing press, we have; they before the nineteenth century, we are privileged to live in the age of human rights and intellectual improvement.

‘Modern Enlightenment contrasted with Ancient Barbarism, Literary Garland, 1840, p.409.

Invocation of the nineteenth-century was used ironically, to contrast associations of progress, enlightenment and modernity, with either a society’s own shameful reality, or in polemics against societies or institutions considered backward. When this discursive practice emerged, is something to be studied more closely: certainly British sermonists offered reflections on the opening century right from the start (not that there would be agreement about when it started – see the German dramatist August von Kotzebue writing a one-act satire, The New Century, ‘upon the ridiculous contest that has been carried on no less eagerly upon the continent than in England upon the time when the new century commences’).[ii]

In early-nineteenth-century British Protestantism, the Papacy might be measured against the nineteenth century as an obscurantist medieval survival.[iii] Or anti-slavery abolitionists would invoke the century as if this itself was a compelling argument against slavery:  ‘It was a foul disgrace to our country that such discussions as this took place in the nineteenth century,’ according to the British Anti-Slavery Reporter in 1832.[iv] Here, no doubt, there was a sense of eighteen centuries of Christianity having elapsed. The adjective ‘vaunted’ could be used to undercut the boasts about material or moral advance: so susceptibility to medical quackery might be contrasted with the claims to intelligence, in medical journalism.[v] The ‘boasted’ nineteenth century could be contrasted with the reality of – apparently –wholesale infanticide in the British newspaper press.[vi]

There are obvious expressions of a sense of an age apart, in journals and book titles in the Anglophonic world such as the short-lived periodical Adventurer of the Nineteenth-Century of 1823; the Philadelphian quarterly miscellany The Nineteenth Century of 1848, with its image of a the Byronic figure bringing or heralding enlightenment (and the dying cry from Goethe, ‘Light, more Light still’), on its cover; or the monthly review The Nineteenth Century (founded in 1877 continued, clumsily as The Nineteenth Century and After in 1901), and various tales or romances ‘of the nineteenth century’ from the early part of the century onwards.[vii]

These uses of ‘nineteenth-century’ in a title had different purposes, of course: from indicating an expertise in current concerns; as an attempt to satirise the ‘follies of the day’ (or, the reverse, offer a ‘fashionable view’); or as a commercial effort to appear up to date. Serious studies of literature and art, or works of contemporary history, incorporated the century in their title – this usage we might identify as the purely ‘factual’ use of the label.

Works of contemporary social theory or ‘sociology’ might invoke it in the title: John Glyde’s Suffolk in the nineteenth century: physical, social, moral, religious, and industrial, for example, which was published in 1856. There were social reformers who used the label, such as the American Margaret Fuller’s Woman of the Nineteenth Century or the Englishman John Minter Morgan’s Hampden in the nineteenth century; or, Colloquies on the errors and improvement of society. Pamphleteers might invoke it, thus the 1859 work, published in Brighton, Why do the servants of the nineteenth century dress as they do? Works of scientific romance and utopias deliberately revisited the present in discourse that highlighted the ‘nineteenth century-ness’ of the present.[viii]

It is possible, if we turn to visual culture, that posters and advertisements invoked the nineteenth-century. It would be interesting to see if ‘problem paintings’ and works of social realism invoked the idea in titles or subtitles, when exhibited to contemporaries. The architect Augustus Pugin’s famous Contrasts: Or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day. Shewing the Present Decay of Taste. Accompanied by Appropriate Text (1836) invoked the nineteenth century in those terms in the text of his polemical work rarely, but the sense of ‘modern’ art and architecture as qualitatively different, was present throughout the century.

Conscious acts of modernisation – literary or technological, might invoke the century. Thus there appeared an updated version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which was entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress in the Nineteenth Century, published by the American William R. Weeks in 1848:

The Author makes no pretensions to the originality of Bunyan but he hopes by taking his Pilgrims along the same path which Bunyan has marked out and introducing such new incidents as are adapted to the present century to furnish a book of useful reading for both young and old.

Preface, The Pilgrim’s Progress in the Nineteenth Century, New York: Dodd, 1848, p.iv




It might seem easy to say when the century ended – 1899, 1900 or 1901. The British Queen who had commissioned the sculptor Emil Fuchs to commemorate ‘The Entry of the Reign … into the New Century’, conveniently died at the start of a new century for the British Empire, but the nineteenth century did not end with the Queen in Osborne House in 22 January 1901.

Studying the British literature of nostalgia, reflection and assessment brought about by the end of a century, offers scope for analysis of what it was thought to mean, to have lived in the nineteenth century, and how it was contrasted with the promise of a new era. (and I have only done this very cursorily here).

For a radical British newspaper, Reynolds’s Newspaper, the ‘dead century’, although undoubtedly the ‘wonderful century’ of science that the scientist Alfred Russel Wallace had called it, was disappointing: for it was to be characterised by militarism and mammonism: ‘Instead of furnishing new and better conditions for the mass of men, it looks as though the twentieth century would be one of the hardest men have ever known.’ (‘The Dead Century’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 30 December 1900).  For the Penny Illustrated Paper, no critic of imperialism, there was no foreboding, as it made a rapid retrospective of the century. But the ending, as in the beginning, has been debated – we might take it as 1914 (from the perspective of the Great War) or seek a date relating to some starting point for literary, artistic or generalised ‘modernism’.

James Gregory, September 2014

Contemporary comments

THE century which has lately rolled away is replete with memorable events. The condition of the human race has undergone many and considerable alterations within that period particularly among its more refined and civilized members. Perhaps there has never occurred since the Christian era a more eventful or instructive lapse of time. In a state of society, when the globe is frequently circumnavigated by vessels of moderate burthen, upon commercial voyages, when colonies are sent forth and planted at the antipodes, and when the effects of the discovery of America have been experienced both here and in the eastern hemisphere for more than three secular ages, there must be much for the historical observer to record.

Medical Repository (New York), February – April 1804, p.373.

Look around you, and see how Europe, shaken to her ancient foundations, is hastening at the call of genius to reconstruct the social edifice, and to immortalize the nineteenth century by new creations and new claims to future glory.– Behold how the yoke of the tyrant of the seas, of the enemy of the repose of Europe, is breaking on every tide.

‘Address of Kosciusko to the Poles’, in Annual Register … for the Year 1807 (London: 1809), p.665.

Here, if you are told that the great clock of time has gone back three centuries, you will find little to break the illusion; so solemn and sombre is the place, and so shut out from the bustling, active, reforming nineteenth century.

J.J. Smith, The Cambridge Portfolio (London: Parker, 1840), vol.2, p.355.

The age in which we live, after every allowance has been made for the influence of our feelings on our judgment, must still be regarded as one of a very peculiar character, and fraught with momentous consequences. A distinguished historian has remarked that it will probably be denominated by posterity, the constitutional period. In the arts and sciences it is not so much the age of discovery and research, as of the skillful application of the discoveries and researches of former times – less the age of bright creations of genius, than of the refinements of criticism and taste. In religion, did we care to designate it by a single term, we might call it the reviving period, not only as revivals of religion abound in it, but as christians seem to be waking up to the consideration of their duties, in some points not heretofore so well understood, or so correctly appreciated. That there is enough to distinguish this age from those that have gone before, and to entitle it to some general appellation implying its peculiar character, might then be assumed …

‘Moral Characteristics of the Nineteenth Century’, Quarterly Christian Spectator 5, June 1833, pp.193‒206 [p.193].

I hope it will be acknowledged that I have conducted the comparison with the greatest candour and in selecting the Works of the leading men of the day I have placed the architectural productions of the Nineteenth Century in fair contrast with those of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth. That the former Edifices appear to great disadvantage when thus tried by the scale of real excellence will be readily admitted by all who are competent to think on the subject …

A.W. Pugin, Contrasts: Or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day. Shewing the Present Decay of Taste. Accompanied by Appropriate Text (1836), p.iii.

Should some industrious antiquary, in the zeal of his researches, take down the present number from the dusty shelves to which we fear even our lucubrations may then be consigned, he will at least find it recorded, that, although duly sensible of the spirit of invention which is abroad in our own age, far from imagining that we had attained the height of perfection, we believe ourselves merely at the threshold of improvements and discoveries greatly surpassing the wonders of the first half of the nineteenth century.

‘The Guttenberg Jubilee in Germany’, Foreign Quarterly Review, 1840, p.457.

The system of decoration is, just now, all of the character of the Middle Ages, and our rooms are crowded with Elizabethan ornaments. We may reasonably expect, therefore, that the next age will adopt for its adornments the style which is prevalent at the present period. What the armed knight of our ancestors is to us, the policeman of tin uniform will be to our posterity. Already the watchman of olden times is almost eligible to the honours of statueship, and the stage-coachman of our boyish days will soon be entitled, on the score of antiquity, to take his place among our effigies.

‘The Middle-Age Mania’, Punch, 27 March 1847, p.126.

During the past hundred years the world has made more material progress than in all the thirty centuries which have elapsed since the days of Homer. The Nineteenth Century has been a new Renaissance. It has given us the railway, the steam-ship, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the perfecting press, the photograph, the sewing-machine, the reaper and mower, the perfected factory system, the armoured war-ship, the high-powered gun, the electric transmission of power, the electric car, the electric light, the gas light, the friction match, anaesthetics, antiseptics, the Röntgen rays, and a hundred and one other things which help to make life worth living.

‘The Old century and the New’, Penny Illustrated Paper, 5 January 1901, p.6.

The nineteenth century was primarily an era of scientific, industrial and commercial development, and people generally were busily engaged therewith. Art and architecture were regarded as subjects of only secondary importance.

H.F. Ballantyne, ‘Evolution in the Art of Building’, Applied Science incorporated with Transactions of the University of Toronto Engineering Society, n.s., 8:9, January 1914, p.201.



[i]      M. Wintle, in H. Dunthorne and M. Wintle, eds, The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the Low Countries (2012), p.8. On nineteenth-century ideas about periodization, and the relationship to the past, see C. Shaw and M. Chase, eds., The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia. On the use of the Victorian age, see, for instance, S. Joyce, The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror (2007).

[ii]      See, for example, Thomas Howe, The millennium: or, Chearful prospects of the reign of truth, peace, and righteousness; and Serious reflections on the commencement of the new century, 2 discourses: Preached the first on November 5, 1800, and the second on January 4, 1801 in the New Chapel, Bridport, with notes (1801). For the start of the new century, see, for example, ‘On the Question of the Century’, The Monthly Mirror, p.83; Sketch of the Life and Literary Career: Of Augustus Von Kotzebue; with the Journal of His Tour to Paris, … Written by Himself. Translated from the German by Anne Plumptre. To which is Subjoined, an Appendix, p.378.

[iii]     Church of England Quarterly Review (1839), p.169 ‘in all the vaunted illumination of the nineteenth century, Rome is sending back among us the morals, the discipline, and the darkness of the thirteenth.’ See also T. Greenwood, Introductory Lectures on the Study of History (1835), p.153, ‘for we believe that the vaunted civilization of this our nineteenth century is as little proof against the practices of the simplest priestcraft as any other period of human history’.

[iv]     Anti-Slavery Reporter 4, 1832, p.273

[v]     Transactions of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association (1837).

[vi]     ‘Wholesale Infanticide’, John Bull, 5 August 1865, p.501.

[vii]    See, for example H.F. Glysticus, The Tears of Camphor; or, Love and Nature triumphant. A satirical tale of the nineteenth century (1804); The cottager’s daughter. A tale of the nineteenth century (London: B. Crosby, 1806); [Lady Charlotte Campbell] Self-Indulgence: a tale of the nineteenth century (Edinburgh, 1812); Mrs Ross, Paired, Not Matched, Or, Matrimony in the Nineteenth Century (London: Minerva Press, 1815); M. Johnston, The Lairds of Glenfern, or Highlanders of the Nineteenth Century. A tale, etc (London, 1816); J. Holme, Vulpina; or, The crafty sister. A tale of the nineteenth century, in verse … With other poems, etc. (London: printed for the author, [c.1820].); Vittoria Colonna. A tale of Rome in the nineteenth century (Edinburgh; T. Cadell London: Blackwood, 1827), A.M. Porter, Coming Out; a tale of the nineteenth century (1828); P.E. Butler, Raymond. A tale of the nineteenth century, and other poems (Dublin: Tims, 1830).

[viii]    Of course, it might be located in a later period, thus Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century: being original Letters of State under George the Sixth relating to the most important events in Great Britain and Europe, as to the Church and State, Arts and Sciences, Trade, Taxes, and Treaties, Peace, and War; and the character of the greatest persons of those times from the middle of the Eighteenth, to the end of the Twentieth Century, and of the World. Received and Revealed in the Year 1728; and now published, for the instruction of all eminent Statesmen, Churchmen, Patriots, Politicians, Projectors, Papists, and Protestants In Six Volumes (London: 1733). It would be interesting to see how often the twentieth century was invoked in prediction and caution, in the nineteenth: an early example is the letter ‘Improvements in Machinery in the Twentieth Century’, The Tradesman, or Commercial Magazine, 1 October 1809, p.339. Satirical use of letters from the future, include ‘A Page from Posterity’, The Age, 23 October 1831, critical of contemporary Whig politics.