Martini Maccomo, the African Lion King

Of all the different circus disciplines, the one that appears to have been seen as the most ‘exotic’ was that of the lion-tamer. This was man triumphing over nature, and travelling menageries, in which these lion-tamers initially worked, were an embodiment of British imperialism, showing how Britain had dominion over its empire and all that was in it. Big cat shows were also intended to thrill and excite, as the lion-tamer faced nature red in tooth and claw. It fed

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Spotting Wildlife in Arts and Crafts Textiles: The Red Squirrels of Morris & Co.

Red squirrels had reason to be wary of the Victorians. Nineteenth-century culture popularised the animals – they were even kept as pets – but the Victorians also unwittingly caused the decline of the red squirrel population by introducing the rival species, the grey squirrel, to Britain.[1] Today, sciurus vulgaris stands at the centre of an emotionally charged debate about the conservation of native habitats. The red squirrel’s persistent appeal most likely has to do with its endearing looks. But in

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Curry Tales of the Empire

Indian curry is an extraordinarily popular genre of food, visible not only in the shape of curry houses across the world but also as take-aways, frozen curry meals and curry powders sold in grocers’ stores. But what is the history of the Indian curry? Was it Indian to begin with or a colonial imposition evolving from a simplified and over-generalized understanding of local food cultures?  This essay traces the history of Indian curry as we know it today and the

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The Lost Circuses of Victorian Leeds

The Victorian era was the golden age of the circus. By the time that Victoria came to the throne, the circus, as we might recognise it today, was barely seventy years old. Founded in London by Philip Astley in 1768 with displays of horsemanship, military, and trick riding, the circus had expanded rapidly in the following years. Astley travelled throughout England giving performances in many northern towns and cities until he eventually made his way to Dublin. Performances were either

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Crafting Communities: Rethinking Academic Engagement in Pandemic Times and Beyond

It is July 2020, the summer of Covid. Libraries are closed. Museums are closed. University courses and conferences have moved online. A small group of Victorianists gathers on Zoom to learn how to make hair art. Led by Vanessa Warne (U of Manitoba), the event is a test run for the upcoming semester, when Vanessa plans to make hair art with students in an online literature class. Twisting wire around hair, we reflect on the forms of presence and connection

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The Tragic Poet: Whose Name was Writ in Water

There are those who consider the words of the sanguine poet scarcely worth the reading. A prescription formula for funerals, heartbreak and teenage angst, poetry has long been established as the literary tonic for the dilapidated human condition. In the name of authenticity, it naturally follows that the greater the suffering of a maudlin bard, the greater their work and legacy. Mythology has romanticised and popularised the tragic poet, a familiar archetype in celebrity literary culture. It is the reason

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Kitty Lord’s Padded ‘Symmetricals’

This final post (see Parts One and Two) was inspired by a pair of pale pink knitted tights worn by the music hall singer Kitty Lord (1881-1972) in the early 1900s. Part of a collection of Lord’s costumes held at the Museum of London, these ‘symmetricals’ were carefully padded with wool to ensure that her thighs and calves looked suitably shapely and voluptuous [Figure 1]. As these padded symmetricals reveal, and this post will discuss, in late nineteenth century Burlesque

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Hysteria and Victorian Women in Art

In ancient Greece there existed the medical concept of a woman’s “wandering womb”; that is, the womb could move about the body, obstruct breathing and press on other organs to cause various symptoms of illness. It was “an animal within an animal”, according to the celebrated ancient Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia. In the late nineteenth century, the notable French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot began his study of unusual physiological symptoms presenting in women, such as nervous anxiety, faintness, irritability, uncontrolled

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William Seymour: ‘The Female Cab Driver of Liverpool’

On 10 February 1875, William Seymour, a cab driver, was remanded in custody and charged with stealing ‘22 lbs of beef’ and ‘5 lbs of veal’ from Mr Henry Moorby who owned a butcher’s on Leece Street in Liverpool.[1] Although William categorically maintained his innocence, he was charged with theft and the Liverpool Mercury commented that ‘upon the arm and breast of [his] coat were traces of suet which proved incontestably that he was guilty of the crime’.[2] Although this

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The Brotherhood of Free Gardeners

In July 1844, a jovial, portly ship’s steward named Sharrock Dupen mounted a white horse in the Cornish town of Redruth and prepared to accompany 65 of his fellow Free Gardeners in procession to his home town of Hayle, a distance of some ten miles. He was preceded by a trumpeter on horseback, a Brother holding the banner of the Cornubian Lodge, the chaplain carrying a bible on a purple velvet cushion, and a triumphal arch of fruit and flowers

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