Jumbo the Elephant: a very Victorian institution

When I was a toddler, like many other children I hauled around a stuffed toy with me wherever I went. While many had the ubiquitous Teddy Bear, and some had a rabbit, I had a battered and well-worn stuffed elephant. It was grey and threadbare and its name was … Jumbo. Now, I never questioned why it was so called. I just assumed that all elephants were known as Jumbo. But Jumbo the Elephant was a particularly Victorian creation. Jumbo

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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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“A Shadow of a Magnitude”: Toru Dutt’s Writing and Nineteenth-Century Cross-Cultural Dialogue

This is an ode to one of those poets of the world literary tradition whose work captured and immortalized the everlasting magnanimity of the natural world, in the spirit of the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, who strived for excellence in the literary arts, whose life was like a temporal spring that came to an end at the time when it was blossoming; like the nightingale’s voice of Keats’ poem, or the ‘golden autumn’ of Chatterton’s. Yet it was

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Sir Thomas Muir (1844–1934): Victorian Educationist and Mathematician

The purpose of this blog is to introduce the reader to the Victorian mathematician and educationist Thomas Muir, and to provide an entrée to his diaries, in which he wrote of his adventurous tours in the remote interior of the Cape Colony.[i] Muir’s origins and his teaching years in Scotland Muir was a Scottish ‘lad O’Pairts’: Victorian Scotland prided itself on giving opportunities to a talented child from a modest background. Muir’s rise from rural Scottish boy in Lanarkshire to

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‘A Vision of Animal Existences’: Popular Responses to Darwin

In the refreshment room of London’s Zoological Gardens, the protagonist of Edmund Saul Dixon’s short story, ‘A Vision of Animal Existences’ (1862), spots a woman reading a ‘thick volume’ that he recognizes. He pulls out reading material of his own—a newspaper—and, perusing its contents, finds a discussion appropriate to his surroundings: extinction, artificial selection, and species are amongst its topics. Prompted to refocus on the ‘volume’ of his nearby reader, however, he forges a further connection: ‘the blue-robed lady’s green-covered

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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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Nelly Erichsen at the Royal Academy, 1880-1886: One woman’s fight to be accepted as a professional artist

To the President and the Council, we the undersigned students of the Royal Academy do hereby respectfully and earnestly petition that rearranging the schools of this institution you will reconsider the question of granting us a life class for the study of the partially draped figure. We beg to lay it before your notice that almost all of us rely on the profession we have chosen as our future means of livelihood. Therefore a class which is considered so essential

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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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Black Performers in the Nineteenth-Century Circus

The circus has always been, and still is, inclusive by nature. The ‘modern’ circus, founded by Philip Astley over 250 years ago, was underpinned by a wealth of talented black performers. Some became famous in their own right, and were very much in the public eye; their names became household words. Some had just a single named reference in an advertisement, and others were just mentioned by their ethnicity. What has to be remembered, applauded, and celebrated is that in

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