Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Random Times : A Butterman, Some Onions, And The Great Eastern

RANDOM TIMES : 21 September 1863


Our Random Number Generated Time Machine has, this week, whisked us back close to the beginnings of time itself (well the beginnings of time as defined in this series), to September 1863, We have come to rest in the Port of Liverpool and our news is provided by the Liverpool Daily Post. Reading newspapers which are 150 years old highlights the tremendous social and economic changes that have taken place in that time. A week or two before our time machine landed, 100,000 people had gathered in Liverpool on a sunny afternoon to watch the public execution of four men. Earlier in the year, Queen Victoria's wayward son, Edward, had married Princess Alexandra of Denmark, But there were also the beginnings of some of the things that would go on to craft the very shape of the century and a half that followed: the first line of the London Underground system was opened, the Football Association was founded, and linoleum was patented. In Liverpool, Frank Hornby - the man who would go on to invent some of the most iconic toys of the twentieth century - was born.

For all those who bemoan modern newspapers for sacrificing news at the altar of advertising revenue, it is instructive to look back at the local newspapers of the time. What news there is, is hidden amongst column after column, and page after page of advertising. And what news there was, was dominated by events in America, where the Civil War was at its mid-point.

A Butterman, Some Onions, And The Great Eastern

Scattered around the pages of the Liverpool Daily Post are reports from America on the progress of the Civil War which had been taking place for over two years and, tragically, still had another two years yet to run. The idea of the news being "scattered" is quite appropriate: this is the age before instantaneous news could be beamed around the world. Whilst the telegraph system had been in commercial use for some thirty years by 1863, trans-Atlantic telegraph cables were still three years in the future. Thus for news of the progress of the Civil War, people were still dependent on despatches sent by sea, as can be seen by these two examples from the pages of the Daily Post.

The war in America was the major foreign news story of the period, but it had a special significance for Liverpool. That city was the major port for the trans-Atlantic trade and in particular the importation of cotton from the southern States. The war and the Union blockade of the Confederate States had a considerable impact on the local economy. The great shipowners were losing money and the shipbuilders were also suffering. Various attempts had been made to build ships that were intended for the Confederate Navy, but the ships had been seized by the British Government for being in breach of their policy of neutrality.

The interruption of supplies of cotton from America coincided with a widespread reversal in trading conditions and the two things together led to what became known as the "Lancashire Cotton Famine" of 1861-5. There was widespread unemployment and poverty amongst the textile workers of the county and relief efforts were established throughout the country (this is an example from the pages of the Daily Post of a relief society dedicating its efforts to the managers and overlookers of Preston. Despite the detrimental impact of the Civil War, cotton workers in Manchester supported the cause of the Union and its efforts to end slavery in the southern states.


The hindsight of history does not make everything clear! The meaning of this strange public announcement in the columns of the Daily Post remains a mystery, which, perhaps, is better not solved.

"Cleanliness is next to Godliness" was one of the axioms of the high Victorian period, but the 1860s were a time of great controversy over precisely how best to achieve such a state of near-Godliness. One of the main protagonists in this "heated" discussion was a certain Dr Barter, known as the "father of the Turkish Bath" The very idea that the "shores and sewers" of the human body must be flushed (at two shillings a time) is one that still attracts support in the twenty-first century.

When they were not flushing their personal sewers out, the residents of Liverpool were invited to buy a ticket for a day return trip to the Birmingham Onion Fair. This annual fair had been taking place since the eighteenth century and originally it provided an opportunity for city dwellers and country people from all around the Midlands to buy and sell agricultural produce: in particular that favourite delicacy of these parts, the onion. By the 1860s, the fair had almost outgrown its traditional home in the Birmingham Bull Ring and had become associated with every type of amusement, menagerie, and showmanship. Following protests by local shopkeepers it was eventually moved out of the centre of the city, but it was still active as an annual funfair well into the twentieth century.

Brunel's SS Great Eastern was the Branwell Bronte of the Brunel family of ships. Whilst the Great Western and the Great Britain went on to find fame and fortune and a permanent dry dock in history, the Great Eastern led a life punctuated by accident, failure and ignominy. She was built as the largest and most ambitious of the Brunel steam ships, intended for the long distance eastern voyages to India, China and Australia. Work started on building the ship in 1854 and as it was intended to be six times larger by volume than any ship then afloat, the task was a daunting one. The project was jinxed from the very outset: the company given the contract to build her went bankrupt, the launch failed, a boiler exploded on her maiden voyage, and the perceived market of voyages to the far east never materialised. Instead she joined the already overcrowded North Atlantic market sailing out of Liverpool, just at the point when trade with America was beginning to be badly affected by the Civil War. Even when she made trans-Atlantic voyages they tended to be plagued with bad fortune: as we can see, in September she ran into and sunk the ship, Jane. In January 1864 she was put up for sale, but nobody seemed to want to buy her and an idea was even floated to make her the prize in a public lottery (luckily, this came to nothing - what on earth could you do if you won a steamship in a lottery!). Eventually she was bought and leased to a company responsible for laying the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable The great ship that had been intended to carry passengers in luxury to the East, earned her keep by laying out cables on the bed of the Atlantic. At the end of her cable-laying career she was used as a floating billboard on the River Mersey for Lewis's Department Store before eventually being broken up in 1889, just thirty short years after her maiden voyage.


"Last night, about twenty minutes to nine o'clock, a young man of short stature, dressed in black, took a run on the Seacombe slip and plunged into the river. He was heard immediately to cry for help. A boat was put off to his assistance, but no trace of him could be discovered" Comment, on some occasions, is quite superfluous.


What finer way to finish than with a concert by the "Yorkshire Queen of Song", Mrs Susannah Sunderland? She was born in Brighouse (just a mile or so from where I am writing this) in 1819 and her singing ability was first noted by the local blacksmith. She went on to perform throughout Yorkshire, and as the expanding railway system made travel easier, her fame was recognised throughout the land. When she sang for Queen Victoria in London, the Queen is supposed to have said, "I may be Queen of England, but you are the Queen of song ", and she carried the tag-line throughout her career. The performance in September 1863 was, indeed' her last in Liverpool: she retired from singing the following year. A famous singing competition - the “Mrs Sunderland Competition" still takes place in Huddersfield in her memory.

1 comment:

  1. Dr Barter had the right idea. With Brexit very much in our focus, we are challenged to recreate our time of greatness, which happened to coincide with that period when Britain brought sanitation to the world. That was the seed of our greatness, with the attendant vast improvement in public health. To become great again, we must focus once more on our bowels and innovate....

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