Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ragged Victorians - "The Great Unwashed"

Back in the day when a shilling was a weeks wages, when even the 'Pure' (Dogs Dung) was a valuable source of income, poor Victorian 'street' people were living by whatever means they could. No homes, no income and no benefit system for support. Thieving, cheating, prostitution and even child selling, were sometimes the only options these unfortunate souls had. Working the most degrading jobs in the world, in the drains, the sewers, cesspits and mortuaries for little or scant reward. 
~from The Ragged Victorian web site~

The Ragged Victorians - 'The great unwashed'

I very recently discovered a unique group of reenactors from England, and I was so impressed by their quality and authenticity that I felt the need to write a posting about them.
I encourage my readers who are fans of history, living history, and reenacting to read on to meet these living historians whose portrayal of 19th century London's poor takes the hobby to an entirely new level.
But first, to understand why they chose this particular era and class of people, a little history lesson (with loads of photos!):

No, this isn't a scene from a movie or a play; these are 'great unwashed' living historians in a posed photo to promote their reenacting of the wretched poor on the streets of 19th century London

The world of reenacting and living history certainly has changed over the last decade or so. No longer is it strictly about wars and battles or even of specific historical events. For instance, the way I reenact is a good example of what I mean by this; my time-travels back to the era of the American Civil War have little to do with the war itself. More often than not I, instead, concentrate on showing the everyday life by way of the work, fun, and hardships of those who lived through that era, presenting life as it was once lived by the average *northern* American citizen in a 1st person immersion manner.
Yes, I do speak of the War, but in a way that accents my daily life presentation; I have presented myself as a Postmaster and thus I speak of the importance of mail sent from home to the soldiers fighting the battles hundreds of miles away. Many of those letters contained news of the homefront, allowing the military recipient to read of the goings on of their family and of their home town's activities. The study the original letters is what helps us here in the 21st century understand, on a more personal level, the lives of our ancestors and to utilize that information in our living history.
During my presentations I also speak of my life as a farmer, a stage coach stop owner, and even of what it was like to travel great distances in a carriage and spend time at a tavern stop.
Authors from the past can help greatly as well. Without the revisionist opinion of the future 'historians' pushing their agendas, I found that reading the books written at the time can also bring the past to life on a number of different levels. For instance, many people became more aware of the living conditions of the poor people in London, England through the very popular writings of Charles Dickens. In such novels and novelettes as "Oliver Twist" and "A Christmas Carol," Dickens opened widely the eyes of many to the plight of the ragged poor living on the streets of London, Manchester, and other major cities in England. And through his works we here in the 21st century have a very clear image of the lives he describes so well in a historical sense. In other words, what Dickens wrote for his contemporary audience is now a social history lesson.
But it was another man who took the time to search out and actually gave a sort of immortality to these 'great unwashed,' and his name was Henry Mayhew.
Mayhew was born in 1812 in London and, similar to Dickens (who was born the same year), became quite the champion for the poor. After witnessing the impact of a cholera outbreak in England in 1849 where an estimated 13,000 Londoners died, Mayhew wrote an article for the Morning Chronicle newspaper on the impact of cholera on the working class. It was during this time when he fully realized the awful conditions in which the laboring classes lived and convinced his editor to allow him to carry out an investigation on the subject.
He observed, documented and described the state of working people in London, and interviewed - literally interviewed - beggars, street-entertainers (such as Punch and Judy men), market traders, prostitutes, laborers, sweatshop workers, even down to the “midlarks” who searched the stinking mud on the banks of the River Thames for wood, metal, rope and coal from passing ships, and the "pure-finders" who gathered dog faeces to sell to tanners. He described their clothes, how and where they lived, their entertainments and customs, and made detailed estimates of the numbers and incomes of those practicing each trade.
The articles in the Morning Chronicle received a lot of attention, and not all was positive. The Economist, a weekly financial and commercial journal, attacked the publication of such material that it believed was "unthinkingly increasing the enormous funds already profusely destined to charitable purposes, adding to the number of virtual paupers, and encouraging a reliance on public sympathy for help instead on self-exertion."
However, Douglas Jerrold, a Mayhew contemporary who was concerned with social reform, wrote to a friend in February, 1850: "Do you read the Morning Chronicle? Do you devour those Marvellous  revelations of the inferno of misery, of wretchedness, that is smouldering under our feet? We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes me sick. We know nothing of this terrible life that is about us - us, in our smug respectability. To read of the sufferings of one class, and the avarice, the tyranny, the pocket cannibalism of the other, makes one almost wonder that the world should go on. And when we see the spires of pleasant churches pointing to Heaven, and are told - paying thousands to Bishops for the glad intelligence - that we are Christians!. The cant of this country is enough to poison the atmosphere."
In general, however, Henry Mayhew and the Morning Chronicle were widely praised for this year long series, and in 1851 Mayhew collected the articles and put them into book-form called 'London Labour and the London Poor.'
Mayhew's own descriptions are so wonderfully vibrant in these books that he does make mid-19th century London come to life.

So, with his words as our guide, let's imagine that you and I are walking through those dirty old streets of London where...
The pavement and the road are crowded with purchasers and street-sellers. 
The housewife in her thick shawl, with the market-basket on her arm, walks slowly on, stopping now to look at the stall of caps, and now to cheapen a bunch of greens.

Little boys, holding three or four onions in their hand, creep between the people, wriggling their way through every interstice, and asking for custom in whining tones, as if seeking charity. 
Then the tumult of the thousand different cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time, is almost bewildering: “So-old again,” roars one. “Chestnuts all‘ot, a penny a score,” bawls another.
“An ‘aypenny a skin, blacking,” squeaks a boy. “Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy-- bu-u-uy!” cries the butcher. “Half-quire of paper for a penny,” bellows the street stationer. “An ‘aypenny a lot ing-uns.” “Twopence a pound grapes.” “Three a penny Yarmouth bloaters.” “Who‘ll buy a bonnet for fourpence?” “Pick ‘em out cheap here! three pair for a halfpenny, bootlaces.” “Now‘s your time! beautiful whelks, a penny a lot.” “Here‘s ha‘p‘orths,” shouts the perambulating confectioner. 
 “Come and look at ‘em! here‘s toasters!” bellows one with a Yarmouth bloater stuck on a toasting-fork.
  “Penny a lot, fine russets,” calls the apple woman: 
and so the Babel goes on.

And that's our lead in to meet a group of seasoned living historians based in the southern half of England who formed a new, rather unique organization known as The Ragged Victorians - The Great Unwashed. I have not had the pleasure of actually meeting any of the members in person, for they live in England and I am in Michigan, but I did conduct a sort of 'on-line' interview with one of the founding members known as Slogger Rose (or 'Rosie' to the more friendly gentlemen), and she graciously answered my questions and permitted me to use the photographs from their Facebook page and website to accent this posting (that's her in the photo on the left).
Formed in July of 2013, they do their "utmost to replicate the clothes, hardware and mannerisms of the time." They become, as their website states, the 'rag n bone' man, fish sellers, coster girls, pie sellers, match girl, prostitutes, drunks, convicts, thugs, boot cleaners, sweeps, petty thieves, black smith, school teacher, 
urchins, pick pockets, crippled beggar just to name but a 
few, all being kept honest by the constant patrol of our peeler.'
(Peeler, by the way, was the slang term for a policeman. Prime Minister Robert Peel, in 1829, helped create the modern concept of the police force, hence the name "Peeler." A second fun-fact is the term 'bobbie', which is another English slang word for the police, and that also came from Peel by way of his Christian name.)

The Ragged Victorians have around a dozen members, including a few children, as well as a number of prospective future members that are on their 'guest list.' Rosie said that "all have all been re-enacting the Victorian period in one form or another for many years. Whether it was amongst American Civil War enthusiasts, Westerners or just messing about with friends, we’d been dabbling with civilian middle and lower class life for quite some time."
She said that they had spoken of forming a living history group portraying the ragged poor for some time, but the opportunity didn't take hold until they felt the time was right to "take the plunge to set up a group that was to focus entirely on Victorian England in the 1840/50s."  
Extensive research of the era took precedence, and they commenced to study the far less affluent class of people that tend to get fleeting mentions in our modern interpretation of history.

Again, from their website:
The 'Ragged Victorians' enter into the lives of these poor unfortunate souls, dressing in the clothes of the time, using the language, the goods and the currency. Portraying as near to life as possible the hardships they endured.  

And this is where they came up with the name, 'The Ragged Victorians – The great unwashed': from the fact that "the more affluent classes of the time often referred to these unfortunate people as "ragged" or indeed "the great unwashed." 
Obviously this was due to the ripped and ram-shackled clothing they wore and the dirt that covered them.
Not just anyone can become a member of this living history group, by the way. They have a strict recruitment policy in place, "but that’s only to protect the high standards of what we’re trying to achieve and ensures the group’s harmonies are kept balanced."

The members of The Ragged Victorians attend events that mainly take place south of the midlands of England and are "extremely varied, whether we’re in the streets, bringing atmosphere to Victorian markets and fayres, in an open air museum bringing buildings to life, or at a multi-period field event, making the most of prize fights and the side show. We love mingling amongst the public watching them recoil from our unhealthy complexions and doleful stares. Any event or location that wants to enhance their visitor’s Victorian experience is considered."

Most of the members are able to do 1st person, often slipping into it to enhance their character's persona.
As Slogger Rose explains, "We all have a clear view of the direction we want the group to go in and we’ve every confidence that we will be (and can be), the most period correct living history group reenacting the early Victorian period in the UK.
 We want to remove the veil of romanticism that has been placed over the era and give well over-due credit to the majority of the population, struggling to survive brutal conditions. We offer a range of scenarios which include street life with patrolling peelers (policemen), prize fights and side show, all geared up to educate and entertain, young and old alike."

Would you like to experience how wonderfully the Ragged Victorians do their 1st person impression? Though this clip is not from their group, it gives an idea of what to expect if you happen to run into one of them: 
(From You Tube - "This video is based on an actual interview made in the nineteenth century by Henry Mayhew of a sprout girl in London. It highlights the low level of education of the working person in that era.
This extract was taken from a TV series called 'Voices of Victorian London' which was on in 1996 and was acted by Sara Stephens"):

I so admire this sort of dedication to authentic living history.
Upon reading the notes Slogger Rose sent to me for this posting I feel that she and I have the same outlook on historical reenacting: "Progressive reenactment is, understandably, not for everyone and can be quite intimidating," she said, "but for those who do decide to take the plunge, the rewards are plentiful."
Haven't I been saying that?
This is what I strive for as the civilian coordinator for the unit I belong to, the 21st Michigan. Some of our members are at this level while others are working their way up to it.
But we're heading in the right direction - - - - - 
Dear Miss Rose, my hat is off and I bow to you!

Many MANY thanks to Slogger Rose for all of her wonderful input and information, and for allowing me the use of these fantastic photos, every one of which is of the Ragged Victorian reenactors and all of which were taken by photographers Nick Allen, Pat Jacobs, Jim Monk, Dave Phillips and Stuart Lambeth!

Besides the information I received from The Ragged Victorian website and Slogger Rose, I also lifted small portions of this posting from Wikipedia and from the biography of Henry Mayhew on the Spartacus Educational site.

I do have a small list of movies pertaining to this era in England's history that I would like to share with you here. Just click the links for further information.
These are my particular favorites:
Oliver Twist
David Copperfield
Victoria and Albert   
Ghosts of Dickens Past
And  the various versions of "A Christmas Carol"
Yes, yes, I know it's nearly all Dickens, but that's what I have in my collection! I apologize that I don't have more than this on the list. 
I purposely did not include any of the Jane Austen movies, by the way, for The Ragged Victorians are of a little later period in time.

And, just so's we understands each other, 'ere's a bit on money...old English money:
2 farthings = 1 halfpenny
2 halfpence = 1 penny (1d)
3 pence = 1 thruppence (3d)
6 pence = 1 sixpence (a 'tanner') (6d)
12 pence = 1 shilling (a bob) (1s)
2 shillings = 1 florin ( a 'two bob bit') (2s)
2 shillings and 6 pence = 1 half crown (2s 6d)
5 shillings = 1 Crown (5s) 
~ ~ ~ ~

On a personal genealogical note:
I've always been fond of my English heritage, and that heritage runs deep; I've been able to get comfortably back (meaning without question) all the way to the mid-1600's and continue on into the early 1700's when my Shrigley ancestors came over to America and settled in Quaker-friendly Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Another English line of mine, which I can comfortably get back to the mid-1700's, immigrated to North America in the 1870's, and it's this group of ancestors that I am most familiar with.
I am not descended from wealthy people. In fact, quite the opposite: William and Mary Anne Raby, my 3rd great grandparents, were agricultural laborers (farmers) who lived and worked on the land owned by a lord. This was in the community of Geddington in Northamptonshire.

The agricultural laborers such as the Raby’s lived very rough lives. They were not seen as romantic figures, but were noticed as “shambling, slouching, boorish, degraded creatures, improvident, reckless, and always on the watch for what they could get out of the gentry (an upper class person).” This comes from the book, Victorian People by Gillian Avery. 
The ‘ag labs’ workday was not eight hours long as we know today, but was from before sun up ‘til after sun down of strenuous labor, seven days a week. Monica Rayne authored a book called Geddington As It Was, which describes every day life of those who lived in my ancestors home town during the time they lived there, writes, "12 hours a day, six days a week, starting 6:00 am or earlier of hard, physical work. What was known as the 'eight hour bell' was rung at four in the morning, at noon, and at 8:00 at night to give the various laborers notice of the hour to begin their day, when to have dinner, and when to go to bed. (This) out door farm life was physically demanding, but not necessarily equally heavy all year round.”  
The entire Raby family would work together in completing the daily farming chores. My 3rd great grandfather worked out in the fields, harrowing, plowing, planting, weeding, hoeing, tending the animals, digging ditches, and more. 3rd great grandmother, Mary Anne also would have spent her fair share of time out in the fields at William’s side, along with concerning herself with the poultry yard and dairy, as well as keeping house and feeding the family. Mary Anne may have even earned a little extra money by knitting or braiding straw for hat making.
The children’s chores would have included weaving straw, pulling weeds, picking rocks out of the fields, feeding the hens, and scaring crows and birds. This besides their home chores.
Young girls were also expected to work along side of their mother in a variety of handicrafts and household duties. Likewise, young boys with their fathers.

Could this be my
3rd great grandmother, Mary Anne Raby?
An interesting perspective on the dialect of the English language spoken by the ag labs in the area where my ancestors lived again comes from Ms. Avery’s book: “It was half articulate, nasal, guttural, made up almost entirely of vowels, like the speech of savages.” As for the tough language spoken by all of these poor farm workers, including women, she continues, “The foul language is due to the fact that from early childhood they have been employed in the fields. It wears them out in body and makes them brutes in soul and in manners.”

It's no matter that my ancestors were not wealthy or famous; the description above shows us that they were not very different from the poor that The Ragged Victorians so wonderfully imitate. This fact gives me a deep source of pride for these common laborers, for they survived through the worst of it and continue to survive through their descendents.

~ ~ ~ ~

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. When I found out about this assemblage of living historians, I became very excited! I suppose to me it was just so cool to see a reenacting group doing something that not only shows the every day life of a class of people one rarely thinks of, but seeing the members go to such extremes in authenticity to do so!
And, due to my own heritage, I feel I can relate to an extent.
Now that's cool!
Not that I would be able to join them or anything since I live in the Midwest of the U.S. (though if I ever did move to England you can bet they'd be the first group I'd search out - 'course, I'd have to learn the language dialect, though, wouldn't I?).

I'd like to end this posting with a few more excellent photographs of The Ragged Victorians - The great unwashed. Enjoy!



Doughboy said...

Thanks for this! I have sent this on to like minded friends!!
Christopher Wilsonhejewto

Ruth Torrijos said...

WOW! VERY VERY WELL DONE!!!!! lol They look for real! I would love to do stuff like that! :D Thanks for sharing!

Vickie St John said...

I Love the video snip. That actress did an amazing job.

Isabella said...

"A second fun-fact is the term 'bobbie', which is another English slang word for the police, and that also came from Peel by way of his surname"

I believe you mean Given name (Robert being shortened to Bobby/ie) rather than surname. A wonderful post and very interesting read. Thank you!

MissFifi said...

What a fascinating read. And what dedicated people. Nice to see a different side of history that is not told that often.

Historical Ken said...

I have never had a blog posting to get so many hits in such a short time as this. As of this date (Nov. 13) it has had 8423 views - that's in only 5 days!
Anyhow, there have been a number a very kind Facebook comments about this post that I'd like to share here (I am using the first name and last initial of the commenter instead of their name for privacy purposes):
Debra D. "I wonder how the spectators would react to some dirty rag-a-muffins running around town, selling apples and the like..... Even when you go into the historic museum towns, these people are missing and the town is a Utopia, all the merchants, the farmer, the well behaved children, empty jail - what am I saying Sturbridge Village has no jail or Constable!
Up here in the Northeast we don't have much of that at all. No garrisons marching through the civilian towns, everyone is middle class - not even any run away slaves from the south. Its a skewed picture, but we are doing what we can as we are small in number compared to the rest of the reenacting cells across the country."

Sherri G. "It would be interesting to see modern visitors reacting to the reenactors 'true-to-1860s-life' responses to someone of lesser-means: chasing them from shop porches (even if they were little children) and not allowing them to even look at items, insulting them or having them arrested for vagrancy, just for having nowhere else to go."

Victoria Y. "This was brought up in a Dicken's Fair group. Apparently for a couple of years, there was duo who worked the streets as beggars. One girl was a singer and her sister played the violin for them. They dressed very poorly without coats, battered bonnets, torn dirty clothes and so forth. They were supposed to have gotten good and bad comments to management. The bad one were complaining about how dirty and disgusting they were. The good ones were about how dirty and disgusting they were. BTW, they were busking and made a good haul, too."

Dorothy F. "Loved the dirt, they do it so well! When I see pics of reenactors "at war" here, esp Rev War, I'm always wondering why they are so clean!"

Eileen H. "That is an excellent post and sounds like a great group - we're all too clean and healthy!"

Jenna T. "That is soooo awesome! I sometimes think it's actually HARDER to portray the lower societies then it is middle and upper! These people are amazing!"

Justly D. "Now that's "living history". Very few "reenactors" evolve to this level. Thanks for posting!!"

Pauline E. "Excellent recreation of poor people. wow!! even the wounds look real. As I viewed the pictures, I was ewwwing (I don't want to be rude) I don't even want to touch the food. Realizing the conditions were and still for the most part the same. Thanks Ken for posting, a different aspect of re-enacting!"

Debra D. "Ken got loads of hits on his blog and now we can tell him it's gone VIRAL!!! The group who started this just in July would probably be pleased so many are interested in what they are doing!"

And from me - - thanks everyone (and there are literally dozens and dozens more!) for the comments.

TS Rhodes said...

This is just wonderful. I believe I'd rather see these people do their stuff than see Buckingham Palace. Thank you so much for giving us this great article and these beautiful pictures.

Deborah Lundeen said...

Thank you so very much, Ken, for posting such an interesting and educational group. What an excellent job they do! I think my next persona will be a middle to lower economic class lady in society. I think there were so many women on their own, just as today, trying to earn a better way of life for their own. We do not show this enough in living history. Thanks again.
Deborah Lundeen,VA, USA

Sarah-Helen Segura said...

Thank you very much for this post I have really enjoyed it. I also research my family who are 90% Agr.Lab.s or coalminers. I agree with 99.99€ of what you have written except for one thing. Agr.Lab. is NOT the same as farmer. A farmer actually owned his land and would hire Agr.Lab.s to help him work it. A farm hand or farm lab. was a permanent employee, whereas an agr.lab. was employed for peak times like the harvest. Thanks also for mentioning the women who worked very hard indeed and yet in the census's are only mentioned as "wife". This does not do justice to the life they led. I have read an excellent little book about The Village Labourer 1760-1832 By J.L. and Barbara Hammond that provides excellent insight to life then. If you haven't read it I am sure you would love it! I am from the Midlands in England. Helen Segura, Catalonia, Spain.

Historical Ken said...

Thank you so much for your kind comments and for correcting my mistake about Aglabs - - - I certainly do appreciate it!

Sarah-Helen Segura said...

Glad you received my comments in the spirit intended!
Looking forward to more.....

Jenn said...

Thanks so much for sharing!! Fascinating! Someone shared this article in a Facebook group called History for Genealogy Addicts.... was captivating!