Victorian Movember: The Return of the Monarch Beard.

Charlotte Conway

As Movember draws to a close social networking sites are filled with images of men proudly displaying their Franz Josef, Napoleon III and Kaiser Wilhelm inspired facial hair. It therefore seems apt to reflect upon the latter part of the nineteenth century when these individuals were at the cutting edge of fashionable hirsuteness; a time when wearing facial hair was worn by virtually every man, irrespective of social class; and a time when to be clean shaven became tantamount to an act of rebellion. The era of  ‘The Beard and Moustache Movement’.[1]

Irrespective of social class, facial hair is as synonymous with the Victorian man as the corset is to their female counterparts. However, what is less well known, is that this transformation of the nineteenth-century male’s face from the clean-shaven to the hirsute happened in a few short years in the 1850s. It is also worth noting that, unlike today, the popularity of copious and elaborate facial hair we associate with the late Victorian male was not merely fashionable caprice: it was a potent symbol of manliness for a modern, industrial age, and represented the changing nature of their role in society.

George Frederick Muntz, MP

In Dwight E. Robinson 1976 study of facial hair worn by men depicted in The Illustrated London News, he identified an extremely rapid increase in the wearing of beards between 1850 (less than 10%) and 1860 (nearly 50%). The trend continued the beard reaching its height of popularity in the 1890s when over 60% of men were bearded, and nearly 100% wore whiskers in some form. [2] The basis this rapid increase facial hairs popularity was a change in perception of what the beard represented. Up until the early 1850s beards had been considered the mark of the politically or culturally unconventional, the badge of ‘artists and Chartists’.[4] In fact in the 1840s only one M.P., George Frederick Muntz, wore a beard, and ‘although a large man carried a thick malacca cane […] to answer any insults he encountered on the streets’ because a beard stamped a gentleman ‘as either a crank or an artist’.[5] (see Fig. 1) However the collapse of radicalism across Europe post 1848 and the disintergration of the Chartist Movement at home, lessened social anxieties about the threat of revolution and allowed a volte‐face in the public’s perception of what the beard symbolised, permitting it entry into respectable society.[6]

Whilst the beard was losing its revolutionary allusions, industrialisation was changing other aspects of society. Victorian perceptions of the ideals of Manliness: courage, stoicism, independence, morally self-disciplined yet virile, and hardiness[7], were all very much rooted in the long established social constructs of pre-industrial communities and the family units.[8] There is an adage from the period that states ‘born a man, died a clerk’ which perfectly encapsulates the perceived emasculating effects of the new forms of employment modern life offered, forms of employment which simply did not support the old ideals of manliness.[9] Thomas Carlyle’s observed that ‘the old ideal of Manhood has grown obsolete’ [10], implying that changes in working practises created a need to clarify and redefine how manly virtues could be demonstrated in the modern world.

It was in this atmosphere of crisis that ‘The Beard and Moustache Movement’ developed, for what could be a simpler and more obvious way of showing manliness, than growing facial hair?  Starting in the early 1850s a flurry of articles appeared in newspapers and journals promoting the wearing of facial hair, and it’s alleged health benefits, with the enthusiasm and rhetoric of political propaganda. Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine ran an article entitled ‘A Few Words about Beards’ claiming ‘Already the martial moustache, the haughty Imperial, and, the daily expanding whiskers, like accredited heralds, proclaim the approaching advent of the monarch Beard; the centuries of his banishment are drawing to their destined close, and the hour and the man are at hand to re-establish his ancient reign’.[11] The following year Household Words printed another called ‘Why Shave?’, claiming the beard aided the lungs by ‘extruding carbon from the system’ and that, by shaving, men risked damaging their lungs.[12] The Westminster Review published ’The Beard! Why do we cut it off?’ where the author commented that he had himself seen a severe attack of mumps ‘result from the removal of whiskers’[13], and questioned the manliness of clean-shaven men who showed a desire to imitate the soft, round beauty of lip and chin which constitute, no doubt, the most delicate enchantment of the gentler sex.’[14] In the same year The Illustrated London News printed ‘The Beard and Moustache Movement’, where the author claimed shaving was worse than childbirth, because giving birth was ‘not a frequent occurrence, and does not afflict old age. Think of a man’s misery, who has to shave every day.’[15]

Figure Two: Cundall & Howlett, Men of 72 Highlanders who served in the Crimea: William Noble, Alexander Davison and John Harper. Royal Archives, Windsor Collection, London.

Articles of a similar pro-beard stance followed in publications nationwide including a report on a meeting of ‘The Beard and Moustache Club of Newcastle’ in The Gateshead Observer[16] and eventually internationally when an article discussing ‘The Beard and Moustache Movements’ rise appeared in The Illustrated Sydney News. [17] Alongside these, books containing more serious arguments against shaving appeared. T. S. Gowing’s The Philosophy of Beards noted ‘all the leading races of man, whether in warm or cold climates, who have stamped their character on history-Egyptians, Indians, Jews, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Turks, Scandinavians, Slavs – were furnished with an abundant growth of natural covering’.[18] Darwin took pains to point out that hairlessness was preferred by many primitive races, and it was the civilizing presence of Europeans in places such as New Zealand that caused tastes to change.[19]

Psychiatrist Henry Maudsley proposed a link between virility and facial hair; ‘the comb of a cock, the antlers of a stag, the mane of a lion, the beard of a man, are growths in relation to the reproductive organs’ the place where the bodies ‘most primitive passions are aroused’.[20] The Human Hair Popularly and Physiologically Considered by Alex Rowland contained a whole chapter on beards arguing ‘as a rule, every man with a beard is a man of strongly marked individuality – frequently genius – has formed his own opinions – is straightforward – to a certain degree, frequently reckless, but will not fawn of cringe to any man.’[21] Surgeon and dermatologist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson’s Healthy Skin: a popular treatise on the skin and hair, pointed out the blasphemous connotations of shaving ‘God has made us so; must we not say wisely; dare we say unbecomingly? What right have we, then, to dispute Nature’s laws?’[22]

Figure 3: Sir Richard Burton, with his scar clearly visible
Figure 3: Richard Burton

Between them these publications argued a hirsute man would have better health, be more virile, intelligent, a leader, independent, whilst those who shaved were effeminate, and potentially sacrilegious. The press went on to publish articles and images that offered further evidence for the essential manliness of the bearded. First to appear in print were the soldiers of the Crimea. These were not the smart, clean-shaven soldiers the public were used to seeing in England, they were rugged, battle torn and bearded [23] (Fig. 2). Later on reports appeared on the exploits of explorers and adventurers in the colonies. The bravest and most daring of these of these imperial trailblazers became celebrities. Sir Richard Francis Burton soldier, scientist, explorer, writer, linguist, poet, swordsman and, most enthralling of all, erstwhile spy, complete with forked beard and scar from a spear point driven through his face during a skirmish with Somali tribesmen in 1854 (Fig 3).


The media frenzy over ‘The Beard and Moustache Movement’ was short lived, but the sheer amount of copy it produced, and the speed with which news of ‘The Movement’ spread was unprecedented. Once the interest had died down, the beard itself remained; no longer a figure of fascination and curiosity, but as a standard part of the male apparel whatever the background, religious or political persuasion of an individual, all that was relevant was his gender.

It was very simply a symbol of what it meant to be a man.

[1] The Beard and Moustache Movement’. Illustrated London News, 4  February 1854,  p. 95.

[2] Dwight E. Robinson, Fashions in Shaving and Trimming of the Beard: The Men of the Illustrated London News, 1842-1972 (University of Washington: University of Washington Press, 1976) p.1135.

[3] Robinson, p. 1135.

[4] Christopher Oldstone –Moore, The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain’ Victorian Studies, 48 (2005), 7-34. p. 7.

[6] Priscilla Smith Robertson, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952),  pp. 1-8. John Walton, Chartism, ( London: Routledge , 1999), pp. 74- 78.

[7] These manly virtues are based on an amalgamation of the definitions put forward by 5 different authors:, Martin Danahay, Gender at work in Victorian culture: literature, art and masculinity. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005) pp. 2-9, p. 16, p.30. Andrew Dowling, Manliness and the male novelist in Victorian Literature, (Ashgate: Aldershot, 2001) pp. 2-5.  Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp 8-10. John Tosh, Manlinness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-century Britain, (Longman: Harrow, 2005) p. 5, p. 31, p. 138, p. 174. Norman Vance, The Sinews of Spirit, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) p. 14.

[8] Thais E. Morgan, ‘The Poetry of Victorian Masculinities’, in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry ed. by Joseph Bristow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 203-257, (p. 203)

[9] John Tosh,  A Man’s Place (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999)p. 204.

[10] ‘Characteristics’ (1831) A Carlyle Reader: Selections from the Writings of Thomas Carlyle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p.91.

[11] Heighway Osborn William Trenery, ‘A Few Words Upon Beards’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, (Oct 1852), 611-614, (p. 614)

[12] Why Shave?, p. 563.

[14] David, The Beard! Why Do We Cut It Off? An Analysis of the Controversy Concerning it and an Outline of its History, (London: Thomas Bosworth, 1854) p.7.

[15] Morley, Henry et al, ‘Why Shave?’ in Household Words, volume 7 , ed by Charles Dickens (London: Office, 16 Wellington Street, 1853), pp560-563, (p. 563)

[16] ‘The (Hirsute) ”Face of Nature”’, The Essex Standard, 3 February 1854, p. 1.

[17] ‘The Beard and Moustache Movement’, Illustrated Sydney News, 24 June 1854, p. 5.

[18] T.S. Gowing, The Philosophy of Beards , (Ipswich: J. haddock, 1850) p.4

[19] Darwin, The Descent of Man, (London: John Murray, 1874).

[20] Henry Maudsley, Sex in Mind and Education (New York: Bardeen, 1884), p. 11.

[21] Alexander Rowland, The Human hair, popularly and physiologically considered (London: Piper Brothers, 1853), p. 106.

[22] William James Erasmus Wilson, Healthy skin: a popular treatise on the skin and hair (London: John Churchill, 1855), p. 513.

[23]Gordon Baldwin   et al, All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852 – 1860 ed. by (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) p. 22.

[24] Ben Macintyre, Josiah the Great: The True Story of the Man who Would be King, (London: Harper Collins, 2004), p. 21.

[25] Samuel White Baker ‘In the Heart of Africa’, in The African Exploration Anthology

[26] This is the only known photo of Harlan and appeared on the cover of Ben Macintyre’s book, Josiah the Great: The True Story of The Man Who Would Be King (London: HaperCollins, 2005).

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