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MONTHLY BLOG 146, Towards Democracy: The Significance of Britain’s Eighteenth-Century Electorate

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2023)

[Also PJC/website/Pdf70]

Image 1: The Vote of a Poor Man Equalled
the Vote of an Aristocrat’s Younger Son or that of a Wealthy Merchant  
Hogarth’s 1755 image of a wounded and impoverished old soldier,
reaching the head of the queue to cast his vote (in the days of open polling),
was intended satirically.
But it demonstrates that some eighteenth-century voters in Britain were
men from well outside the social elite –
a factor of long-term significance in Britain’s long march towards democracy.
Detail from William Hogarth’s The Humours of an Election, III:
The Polling (1758 engraving of 1755 oil-painting)

Note: This essay appears as a feature ‘Towards Democracy’
in the Newcastle University website for the Project on
Eighteenth-Century Political Participation & Electoral Culture:
see https://ecppec.ncl.ac.uk/features/

Democracy is not a flawless form of government. Nor do all democracies survive for all time. Nonetheless, representative democracies uphold the ideal notion of a rational politics, in which all citizens have an equal vote – all exercise their judgment in choosing representatives, who in turn vote to run the country on behalf of their fellow citizens – and all calmly accept the outcome of a majority vote.1

Such a system was a complete anathema to eighteenth-century believers in absolute monarchy. ‘Democracy’ would equate to rule by the unlettered, irrational, property-less masses. And the result would simply be chaos. Rule by one individual, considered to be divinely instituted, was the countervailing opposite, promoting order, balance, and due protection for property rights.

Transitions from autocracy to democracy have, historically, been very variegated. There are known examples of great revolutions (as in France in 1789), which sought democracy but ended in dictatorship, at least in the short term. And there have been plenty of uprisings in the name of democracy which have briefly flourished but as quickly failed.2

The British case was different. Its progression to democracy was a classic example of slow evolutionary change. Just as successive British monarchs have, after the 1649 execution of Charles I on a charge of High Treason, lost formal governing powers and transitioned into ceremonial figureheads,3 so a countervailing slow trend was leading towards increased popular participation in government, eventually leading to democracy. Changes did not come at a steady pace; but in fits and starts. But, over the long term, they did come – and did so without anything as drastic as a full-scale popular revolution.

There was no gradualist master-plan. But, de facto, Britain took a stepped approach to democracy. In the nineteenth century, the franchise was extended in stages to all adult males (1832; 1867; 1884); while in the later nineteenth century, female rate-payers were allowed to vote in municipal elections after legislation in 1869, before adult women, both rich and poor, gained the parliamentary franchise in two stages in the twentieth century (1918; 1928).4

One key factor that helped to prepare the terrain for democracy was Britain’s eighteenth-century experience of orderly voting in public elections, undertaken by large numbers of adult male voters. It amounted to a constitutionalist tradition which was pre-democratic but which, at the same time, inculcated some core principles later incorporated into democratic politics.

Certainly, there are numerous caveats to be made. The eighteenth-century electoral franchise was not systematic. It varied between the counties and the parliamentary boroughs; and between one of those boroughs and another.5

Furthermore, far from all Britain’s expanding towns had the right to return MPs to Parliament, while – before parliamentary reform in 1832 – some tiny places did. By that date, it had become a glaring anomaly that great centres like Manchester and Birmingham had no direct parliamentary representation. Yet, before 1832, seven Wiltshire electors in the decayed settlement of Old Sarum voted to elect two MPs. In practice, most of the so-called ‘pocket boroughs’ were controlled by the local great landowner, who chose a candidate and bribed or ‘treated’ the electors to get their support. Reformers were scathing. And they renamed these seats as ‘rotten boroughs’ – a hostile term that stuck.6

Nonetheless, throughout the eighteenth century, a number of big cities – notably London, Westminster, Norwich, Bristol, and Newcastle upon Tyne – did have very sizeable electorates. They were far too numerous and sturdily independent to be controlled by rich noble patrons.

And as these thousands of electors voted regularly, they gained electoral experience and proved – to themselves and to the wider world – that men of ‘lower’ status and wealth could participate responsibly in political life. What’s more, in some places (though again, not in all) elections were also held to fill municipal and parochial posts, such as those of beadles, constables, inquest-men and scavengers.

As a result, electors in the open constituencies had the regular experience of deciding to vote – or not to vote – and, if voting, then deciding for whom to vote. For instance, in the London metropolitan region with its many parliamentary constituencies, it is estimated that, between 1700 and 1850, about one third of a million men went to the polls on different occasions, casting between them, including multiple votes in multi-member seats, more than one million votes.7 To repeat: some electors abstained. Others voted rarely; or without deep thought (as can happen today). Yet all lived in a civic culture of regular elections and political debate, where many manifestly did care – and voted to prove it.

Viewed over the long term, eighteenth-century Britain’s lively electoral experiences had three big consequences. Firstly, they established the principle and practice that, among the enfranchised electorate, all voters are equal at the polls. They could and did try to influence one another before any votes were cast. Wealthy men might pay for political leaflets or ‘treat’ voters in the local hostelries. Poor men might demonstrate aggressively; or organise to maximise their support. All these things happened. Yet, at the polls, each vote counted the same. And the victory went to the majority.

Consequently, voting in the large constituencies was a shared experience across the social classes. Queues at polls included politicians and aristocrats (other than titled heads of noble families, who sat in the House of Lords); bankers and plutocrats; professional men and publicans; builders and brokers; plus multitudes of shopkeepers and artisans; and a not insignificant number of labourers, porters, and servants.8 Such cheek-by-jowl voting did not in itself uproot the underlying socio-economic distribution of power and wealth. Yet it marked an egalitarian principle. When polling, all electors are equal: an instructive lesson, in a profoundly unequal society, for all to imbibe.

Secondly, the eighteenth-century’s many elections encouraged the flowering of public political campaigning. Of course, a lot of politicking continued privately, behind the scenes. And publicly, as already noted, it might happen that political calm prevailed in the ‘pocket’ boroughs, whilst ‘election fever’ was rampaging elsewhere.  Nonetheless, in a period when literacy levels were steadily rising – and the output of the press, including satirical squibs as well as serious tracts, was richly diversifying – political awareness was spreading, not only among the electors but also across the wider society.

Image 2: The Excitement of Public Political Campaigns
Detail from Robert Dighton’s depiction of Londoners at the pollsin the Westminster constituency (1788):showing a lively cross-class crowd of electors and onlookers,including an elegant young upper-class gentleman (R)and a plain but not poor citizen (Centre) who is being deftly pick-pocketed –
plus others carrying banners, a woman selling election literature, and a crying child.
Not all were thinking deeply about how to cast their votes
but the hubbub spread the public awareness that ‘the people’ had an electoral role to play. indication of popular participation in politics

This era accordingly saw the advent of systematic electoral campaigning; with organised nation-wide parties (subject to change and flux, as happens today), with rival political slogans and manifestoes; with rival speeches at the hustings; with support from rival newspapers; with teams of canvassers; with ward organisers; with celebrity endorsements; with election songs;  down to the details of rival party colours, sported not only by candidates and canvassers but also by the partisan crowds who gathered to witness the excitements during close contests. Elections thus triggered wider political debates and a sense of civic awareness. The fun of mock elections in part parodied these processes, whilst simultaneously testifying to a popular awareness of their role.

A third consequence, finally, was to establish the expectation that political disputes be settled by constitutional means, rather than by fighting. True, there were many riots and some rebellions in eighteenth-century Britain.9 Yet a counter-vailing constitutionalist tradition was becoming strongly entrenched. Parliament in this era was establishing its core rules and procedures; and its institutional prestige was rising. Equally, too, the electoral system, which voted MPs into office, was gaining in status. Thus election results, after contests in many big constituencies, were often taken to represent ‘public opinion’.10

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that elections were not organised from the centre, by royal courtiers or ministers; but locally, by county and municipal officials. They called the contests; and acted as returning officers. And, if the outcome of a parliamentary election was disputed, the case was referred for adjudication not to royal officials but to Parliament. Voters were thus outriders for the prestige of the legislative body. Hence the growing number of reformers, who, from the 1770s onwards, campaigned to widen the franchise, did so not to undercut the powers of Parliament but to improve them – by improving its electoral base.

In effect, therefore, political reformers from the 1770s onwards were trying to redirect an existing constitutionalist tradition into a democratic direction. And they cited the eighteenth-century’s experience to reassure the doubters. It was true that popular passions at times overran good order. There were numerous election affrays; and a few significant election riots. Yet those were very much the exception. Many elections were quiet and routine – and some were not contested at all, producing a result without any political heat or disputation.

Indeed, that routine functioning marked instead the triumph of constitutionalism. It could encompass concord and it certainly did not depend upon violence and bloodshed. Instead, political reformers stressed that those outside the political elite were capable of taking a sustained and constructive political role. Thus the Whig peer (and historian) Lord Macaulay in December 1831 supported reform, in a famous set of speeches, by stressing the responsible behaviour of the London electors. No extremists there. Instead, the London seats had over many years become ‘famed for the meritorious quality of their MPs and their constituents’ readiness to support that merit’.11

Image 3: A Serious Politician Sustained by his Westminster Electorate  
Charles James Fox (1749-1806) was the controversial Whig reformer who made his name as unofficial Leader of the Opposition to the conservative-minded government of William Pitt.
Fox is satirised here as an overweight, unkempt Demosthenes (the classical Greek orator)
but the image also caught the power of Fox’s oratory as a ‘man of the people’
which won him vital constitutional support from the Westminster electorate.

Full democracy was not a mainstream possibility in eighteenth-century Britain. The national political tradition was one of oligarchic constitutionalism, with before 1832 a highly unsystematic constitution to boot.

Yet, within that lack of system, there was scope for significant new developments. The rules and practices of routine electoral politics were being collectively constructed. Elections were becoming normalised. And the power to vote was accepted as a ‘right’ of every qualified elector. In fact, in the large open constituencies, many comparatively poor electors would not have qualified for the vote under the new middle-class rate-paying franchise introduced in 1832. But, significantly, the reform legislation did not disenfranchise any of those existing electors. They kept their ‘right’ to vote throughout their lifetimes.

Determined political reformers, moreover, wanted more participation, not less. They proposed to extend the franchise to all adult males. A few visionaries talked also of votes for women.

Pathways of historical change were often long and winding. And they are rarely pre-destined. Nonetheless, the electors in eighteenth-century Britain were the historic precursors of Britain’s democratic electors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There was a voting tradition long before there was full democracy. These eighteenth-century electors also influenced Britain’s North American colonists, who framed the constitution of the new USA post-1783.12 The republican system was built upon regular elections plus an extensive adult male franchise (to which, later, adult male ex-slaves and, later still, all adult women were added – albeit not without epic struggles).

Britain’s eighteenth-century electoral culture was thus mightily influential. It was imperfect and unsystematic. Yet, in practice, it established: the equality of votes; the arts of public campaigning; and the seriousness of electoral politics. It was a vital history, not of democracy; but of proto-democracy.

ENDNOTES:

1 B. Crick, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2002); J-W. Müller, Democracy Rules (2021).

2 Among a huge literature, see C. Welzel, ‘Theories of Democratization’, in C.W. Haerpfer and others (eds), Democratization (Oxford, 2009; 2019), pp. 74-91; and M.K. Miller, Shocks to the System: Coups, Elections and War on the Road to Democratization (Princeton, NJ, 2021).

3 B. Hubbard, The Changing Power of the British Monarchy (Oxford, 2018); F. Prochaska, Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy (New Haven, 1995).

4 For context, see M.N. Duffy, The Emancipation of Women (Oxford, 1967).

5   See F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons and Parties: The Unreformed Electoral System of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832 (Oxford, 1989).

6 R. Mason, The Struggle for Democracy: Parliamentary Reform, from the Rotten Boroughs to Today (Stroud, 2015).

7 Documented by Edmund M. Green, Penelope J. Corfield and Charles Harvey, Elections in Metropolitan London, 1700-1850: Vol. 1 Arguments and Evidence; Vol. 2, Metropolitan Polls (Bristol, 2013); and evidence within the London Metropolitan Database.

8 All these occupations, plus many more, appear in the London Metropolitan Database.

9 See e.g. I. Gilmour, Riot, Risings and Revolution: Governance and Violence in Eighteenth-Century England (1992).

10 See summary in P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (London, 2022), pp.  180-85.

11 T.B. Macaulay, Speeches of Lord Macaulay, Corrected by Himself (1886), p. 34.

12 See variously R.R. Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (New York, 2009); M. Lienesch, New Order of the Ages: Time, the Constitution, and the Making of Modern American Political Thought (Princeton, NJ., 1988; 2016); and ‘A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns, 1788-1825’: https://elections.lib.tufts.edu.

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MONTHLY BLOG 142, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 10: Annual Commemorations UK ANTI-SLAVERY DAY ON 18 OCTOBER & THE LIFE OF OLAUDAH EQUIANO (c.1745-97)

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-97),
former child slave whose public testimony
made a strong contribution to the British
campaign to abolish the slave trade.

Georgian Britain is known for its historic participation in the transportation of captive Africans from their homeland to the New World. There the involuntary migrants were detained as slaves. Set to work in the sugar plantations, they were viewed by their ‘masters’ as an ultra-cheap labour-force. But familiar references to the ‘slave trade’ can blunt appreciation of the horrific reality. The financiers, merchants, dealers, ship’s captains and crews were all colluding in – and profiting from – a brutal demonstration of power inequalities. European traders and opportunistic African chiefs, fortified with guns, whips, and money, preyed upon millions of unarmed victims. They were exiled abruptly from everything that they knew: not only from families, friends, and communities but also from their languages, lifestyles, and belief systems. It was trauma on an epic scale.1

However, Georgian Britain was also known, especially as time passed, for a growing tide of opposition to the trade.2 The egalitarian Quakers were among the first to declare their repugnance.3 But, increasingly, others were galvanised into opposition. People were shocked to learn of the dire conditions in which the Africans were kept on board ships as they navigated the notorious Middle Passage across the Atlantic.4

One eloquent testimony came from the Anglican clergyman, John Newton (1725-1807). As a young man, he was involved in the slave trade, which he later abhorred. His resonant hymn Amazing Grace (1773, pub. 1779) explains that he once ‘Was blind, but now I see’. Newton was probably alluding to his spiritual awakening, which led him to take holy orders. Yet the phrase applied equally well to his change of heart on the slave trade.

Others found that their eyes were similarly opened, especially once the new Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (founded 1787) began its energetic campaigning. Among those aroused to protest were numerous middle- and upper-class women. In this era, they had no right to vote; yet that did not stop them from organising petitions, lobbying ministers, and joining anti-slavery groups.5

In 1700 there was virtually no public debate in Britain about the rights or wrongs of the trade. Yet by 1800 opposition was strengthening amongst the wider public as well as within parliamentary circles. Supporters of slavery and the slave trade had some important assets on their side. Those included: tradition; profits; strong consumer demand for sugar and rum; and (before 1807) the law.6 However, the pro-slavers were forced increasingly onto the defensive.

An abolitionist tract in 1791 argued forcefully that: ‘We, in an enlightened age, have greatly surpassed in brutality and injustice the most ignorant and barbarous ages: and while we are pretending to the finest feelings of humanity, are exercising unprecedented cruelty.’7 People should ‘wise up’ to the injustices that underpinned their consumer lifestyles – and live up to the claims of the new Zeitgeist. The same case was made by the African abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano, himself a former slave. Freedom for ‘the sable people’, he declared, was essential in this era of ‘light, liberty, and science’ (1789).8

And legal changes did follow. Notwithstanding intensive lobbying from the slave traders and the West Indian plantation-owners, the British parliament legislated in 1807 to ban British ships from participating in the slave trade; and (a generation later) to abolish slavery as a valid legal status within Britain and its colonies. A separate act in 1843 extended the prohibition to India, whose governance was then overseen by the East India Company.

These declarations of principle were massively significant. And Britain was not alone in rejecting slavery. Personal unfreedom was increasingly held to be unjustifiable in any humane and civilised society. As is well known, it took a bruising civil war (1861-5) to abolish slavery in the USA. But the Southern slave-owning states did eventually lose.

Over time, moreover, world-wide opinion has collectively swung into line. In 1926 the new League of Nations agreed an international treaty to ban slavery and the slave trade. And in 1949, the United Nations General Assembly updated that commitment with a further emphatic rejection of all people-trafficking.9 In no country since 1981 has slavery been legal.10

Yet there was, throughout the nineteenth century, as there remains today, a gigantic problem with these radiant declarations of principle: enforcement.

Which authorities were to police these prohibitions, and with what powers? Nation-states can potentially check upon things within their own bounds. Yet cross-border people-trafficking raises complex practical and jurisdictional issues. As a result, slavery resolutely survives. There are problems of definition as there are many diverse cases of unfreedom, whether established through physical force, psychological or financial coercion, debt bondage, abuse of personal vulnerability, outright deception, or reliance upon customary practices.

Today there are almost 50 million citizens world-wide living in conditions of slavery. Very many are women or young children, including those trapped into providing sexual services. Some 27.6 million individuals undertake forced labour, while another 22 million are caught in forced marriages (which are, legally, a different category of abuse). Countries with notably large numbers of modern-day slaves include, in Eurasia and the Far East: China, India, Indonesia, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the Philippines; as well as, in Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.11

But no region of the world can be complacent. Heartless people-traffickers bring their human cargo everywhere, providing cheap labour and/or cheap sexual services. How does this infamous state of affairs still continue? People traffickers are motivated by the lure of high profits and enabled by the weaknesses of national and international enforcement.

Equally, however, the ‘open secret’ of modern-day slavery is aided by the ‘blindness’ of today’s consumers. They are as keen to acquire cheap goods and services as people in the Georgian era were to drink cheap Caribbean rum and to sweeten their tea with Caribbean sugar. Moreover, when many consumers today are suffering from the rising cost-of-living, they may obviously lack time and enthusiasm to give a stringent moral audit to determine the source of every item of food, clothing, housing, technology and services.

So that is where campaigners with energy for the abolitionist cause continue to play a vital role. In the early nineteenth century, reformers like William Wilberforce (1759-1833)12 were ridiculed for their ‘do-gooding’. Yet the Abolitionists’ campaigning successfully propelled the cause of anti-slavery from a minority issue to the forefront of politics.

Activists today try equally valiantly to highlight the predicament of people trapped in slavery – to urge better preventive action – and to help survivors who manage to break free. There are numerous admirable church groups and non-governmental organisations devoted to these tasks. The longest continually-surviving NGO is Anti-Slavery International, founded in Britain in 1839.13 It needs great reserves of optimism and persistence, as its hydra-headed foe is proving hard to eradicate. There are perennial arguments between vested commercial interests and the civic need to regulate the labour market, so that the workforce gets a fair deal from its labour.

Celebrating anti-slavery was boosted in the UK in 2010 by the introduction of 18 October as Anti-Slavery Day. (The UN’s international equivalent date is 2 December). Such events signal an official reaffirmation of principle – and a desire to educate the public. In the same spirit, a number of European and African governments (including the UK under Tony Blair) have publicly apologised for their country’s historic role in the slave trade. Some seaports, banks, and churches have done the same. And continuing discussions explore constructive and culturally-sensitive means of acknowledgement and reparation.14  (Far from all long-term outcomes of the trade are disastrous!)

Public attitudes are also stirred by direct testimony from former slaves. In eighteenth-century Britain, the Nigerian-born Olaudah Equiano15 was not the only African to support the Abolitionists. But he became the best known, o the strength of his personal message. Himself a former child slave, who had been taught to read and write by one of his ‘masters’, he managed to purchase his freedom. Eventually Equiano became a respectable rate-payer in the City of Westminster,16 where he voted in parliamentary elections. He married an Englishwoman and raised a family. And he bore public witness. He lectured in all the major cities of England, Ireland and Scotland; and in 1789 he published his best-selling autobiography, entitled, with clever understatement, The Interesting Narrative.

Furthermore, Equiano’s career and his calm demeanor carried a further implicit message. His evident fellow humanity refuted all those who mistakenly believed that sub-Saharan Africans were innately ‘savage’ – constituting ‘inferior’ beings, who merited treatment as disposable beasts of burden. The lectures and writings of the gentlemanly, God-fearing Equiano could not in any way be deemed the work of a ‘savage’.

Theories that divided humanity into separate ‘races’, all with intrinsically different attributes, have had a long and complex history.17 Some continue to believe them to this day. In fact, it has taken a lot of research and debate to refute so-called ‘scientific racism’ and to establish the properties of the shared human genome, or genetic blueprint.18

Equiano himself simply bypassed any racist attitudes. Instead, he agreed with those who, like the Quakers, firmly asserted the oneness of all people. He believed in fellow feeling and human sharing. Thus he asked, rhetorically: ‘But is not the slave trade entirely a war with the heart of man?19

Reflecting upon Equiano’s contribution to the Abolitionist cause prompts a further thought for today. The world needs to hear many more testimonies from people who have themselves endured modern-day slavery. It is known to exist but remains hidden – deliberately on the part of the perpetrators. They don’t all today wield guns and whips (though some do). But they prey heartlessly, with the aid of money, threats, and secrecy, upon the world’s least powerful people.

Step forward, all former slaves who have the freedom to speak out – like Sir Mo Farah, the British long-distance runner.20 Tell the world how it happens! Blow open people’s ears, eyes and minds! The more that is known, the harder it is to keep these things secret; and the greater will be public pressure upon governments to enforce the long-agreed global prohibition of enslavement. The old slave trade was a historic crime against humanity. Time now to stop its iniquitous modern-day versions.

Logo of Anti-Slavery International:
see https://www.antislavery.org.

ENDNOTES:

1 An immense literature, drawing upon generations of international research, now makes it possible to estimate the scale of the enforced African diaspora and its wider impact. See esp. J.K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge, 1998): S. Drescher, From Slavery to Freedom: Comparative Studies in the Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery (Basingstoke, 1999); D. Eltis, ‘The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment’, William & Mary Quarterly (2001), pp. 17-46; H. Thomas, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 (2015); and all studies cited by these authors.

2 For their divided world-views, see P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (2022), pp. 41-70.

3 B. Carey and G. Plank (eds), Quakers and Abolition (Urbana, Ill., 2014).

4 M.B. Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007); F. Wilker, Cultural Memories of Origin: Trauma, Memory and Imagery in African American Narratives of the Middle Passage (Heidelberg, 2017).

5 C. Midgley, Women against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870 (1992); A. Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (2005); re-issued as idem, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2010); J.P. Rodriguez (ed.), Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World (2007; 2015); S. Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Anti-Slavery (Cambridge, 2009).

6 M. Taylor, The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (2020).

7 Anon. [William Fox], An Address to the People of Great Britain … (11th edn., London, 1791), p. [i].

8 O. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative: And Other Writings, ed. V. Carretta (1995), p. 233.

9 UN Resolution 317(IV) of 2 December 1949: also banned was any form of ‘exploitation or prostitution of others’.

10 The last country legally to abolish slavery (in this case, hereditary slavery) was Mauritania in West Africa, although the practice is believed still to survive clandestinely.

11 Estimates by the United Nations agency, the International Labour Organisation (ILO): https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm

12 For Richard Newton’s satirical print of Wilberforce as ‘The Blind Enthusiast’ (1792), see British Museum Prints and Drawings no. 2007,7058.3; biography by J. Pollock, Wilberforce (New York, 1977); and sympathetic film Amazing Grace (dir. M. Apted, 2007).

13 Consult https://www.antislavery.org

14 M. Falaiye, Perception of African Americans on Reparation for Slavery and Slave Trade (Lagos, Nigeria, 2008); A.L. Araujo, Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History (2017).

15 J. Walvin, An African’s Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-97 (2000); L. Walker, Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Man (2017). The Nigerian-born Equiano was known in Britain for many years as Gustavus Vassa, a name which alluded to the Swedish Protestant hero Gustavus Vasa (1496-1560), as chosen by Equiano’s slave master. For further appreciation and commemoration, see the Equiano Society, founded 1996:  https://equiano.uk/the-equiano-society

16 A blue plaque at 67-73 Riding House Street, London W1W 7EJ marks the site.

17 E. Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concept of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars (Cambridge, 1992); P.L. Farber, Mixing Races: From Scientific Racism to Modern Evolutionary Ideas (Baltimore, 2011).

18 For further details, see PJC: ‘Talking of Language, It’s Time to Update the Language of Race’ (BLOG/36. Dec. 2013); ‘How Do People Respond to Eliminating the Language of Race?’ (BLOG/37, Jan. 2014); ‘Why is the Language of ‘Race’ Holding on for So Long, When It’s Based upon Pseudo-Science?’ (BLOG/38, Feb.2014); ‘As the Language of ‘Race’ Disappears, Where Does that Leave the Assault upon Racism?’ (BLOG/89, May 2018); ‘Celebrating Human Diversity within Human Unity’ (BLOG/90, June 2018): all posted within PJC website: https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/global themes/4.4.

19 Equiano, Interesting Narrative (ed. Carretta), p. 110.

20 As revealed in July 2022: see https://www.antislavery.org/modern-slavery-and-human-trafficking-in-the-uk-sir-mo-farah-story-is-a-lesson-for-us-all.

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MONTHLY BLOG 140, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 8: Annual Memorial Service at Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery, to celebrate the life of India’s remarkable religious, social & educational reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833)

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Republic of India postage stamp (1964),
where his name has alternative spelling as Mohun Roy.

Eighteenth-century Britain witnessed a veritable ferment of ideas. Religious reformers and traditionalists within Christianity battled with one another, whilst religious sceptics, known as ‘freethinkers’, argued against all forms of revealed religion. It was a time for rethinking and renewal; and not just in Britain.

India’s age-old Hindu tradition was also witnessing its own upheavals. One of its most remarkable reformers was a Bengali thinker named Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833).1 He came from a well-established Brahmin family; and was well educated in an array of languages, although the precise details of his schooling remain disputed. He became familiar with Persian and Arabic studies, as well as with classical Sanskrit. Later he learned other languages, including Latin and Greek. Very evidently, he was a gifted linguist.

But Raja Ram Mohan Roy went further. During his formative years, he interacted with spiritual teachers from diverse religious traditions. One was a famous Baptist missionary in India, William Carey (1761-1834). A growing characteristic of Ram Mohan Roy’s own thought was his desire to see into the heart of religion, to find the one true source of godliness. And his companion wish was to purify religious observances, so that external conventions and rituals did not distract worshippers from the chance of a genuine religious experience.

Such an approach was very characteristic of fundamentalist religious reformers. However, Mohan Roy did not break from the Hindu faith to achieve his aims. He remained within its broad-based tradition, and tried to update its customs. Prominent among the targets which he sought to reform were polygamy; child marriage; and the caste system, whereby people were ‘allocated’ to one social position at birth and kept there by rigid custom. Roy was also vehement against the traditional practice of ‘sati’ or ‘suttee’, which required widows to sacrifice their lives on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands.

These campaigns turned Ram Mohan Roy into not only a powerful religious moderniser but also a significant social and educational reformer. He was a liberal pioneer of women’s rights.2 He wrote prolifically. He founded educational institutions. He co-founded the Kolkata/Calcutta Unitarian Society and also founded the Brahma Samaj (a social reform group within Hinduism). He supported the use of English in Indian education. In some ways, then, he can be regarded as vector for the spread of Western ideas into India, in that he wanted India to shed its outmoded customs and to become ‘modernised’, like its then rulers – the officials in the East India Company, for whom Roy had worked.3

At the same time, however, Ram Mohan Roy was also a great example of the rich eclecticism of the Hindu tradition. He believed in the inner ‘oneness’ of all religion. (This aspect of his thought appealed to many British and American Unitarians, who abjured Trinitarian Christianity to worship the one divine power). And Ram Mohan Roy clearly did not seek a personal redeemer. So for him there was little point in changing churches, when the divine can be worshipped everywhere: God is one. He has no end. He exists in all the living things on the Earth’.

There were well known later debates within India, as to how far Roy was simply a ‘child of the West’. Yet that viewpoint misses the strength of his Hindu spiritualism. Moreover, he was sufficient of an Indian gentleman to accept the honorific title of ‘Raja’ (prince) from the Mughal Emperor Akbar II in 1830. A determined reformer; yes; but not a social revolutionary.

In September 1833, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was visiting Britain, as an imperial envoy from India. Staying at the small village of Stapleton, near Bristol, he fell ill suddenly and died of meningitis. He was initially buried quietly in the grounds of the house where he had died. But a decade later, his remains were re-interred at the new Arnos Vale Cemetery, at Brislington in East Bristol. This venue was not monopolised by any specific faith. It contains both an Anglican and a Nonconformist Mortuary Chapel; and the authorities made no objection to the inclusion of a devout Hindu.

Ram Mohan Roy’s grave, topped by an Indian Mausoleum, was a fitting component of this ecumenical resting place. At this spot, an annual commemoration of his life and teachings is held every September, at or near the date of his death. Dignitaries like the Mayor of Bristol and the Indian High Commissioner are joined by all other Indians and Britons who wish to share in the remembrance service. There is also a fine statue of Mohan Roy on Bristol’s College Green. And at Stapleton, too, there is today a memorial plaque and a pedestrian walk, named in his honour.       

He did not, of course, plan to die in Bristol. But for Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the apostle of spiritual oneness, there is a certain aptness in finding a peaceful resting-place among the dead of many faiths and none. For the history of Georgian Britain, too, Mohan Roy’s quest for spiritual enlightenment and social reform was part of the ferment of debates between believers and freethinkers.

Many globe-trotting Britons ventured to India in these years. Some were seeking colonial power and trading profits, while others, like William Carey, were intent on saving souls. Yet the exchange of ideas and peoples was not just one way. Where then are respects rightly paid to the remarkable Indian reformer, who was the ‘parent of the Bengal Renaissance’ and also a citizen of the world? Why, in Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery, every September.

ENDNOTES:

1 See variously H.D. Sharma, Raja Ram Mohan Roy: The Renaissance Man (2002); D.C. Vyas, Biography of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (New Delhi, 2010); P. Kumari, Women, Social Customs and Raja Ram Mohan Roy (Patna, 2013).

2 Mohan Roy himself married three times. His first two wives predeceased him, and his third wife outlived him, without, of course, committing sati after his death.

3 Among a huge literature, see variously: J. Keay, The Honourable Company: A History of the East India Company (1991; 2017); S. Sen, Empire of Free Trade: The East India Company and Making of the Colonial Marketplace (Philadelphia, 1998); M. Chowdhury, Empire and Gunpowder: Military Industrialization and Ascendancy of the East India Company in India, 1757-1856 (New Delhi, 2022).

 

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MONTHLY BLOG 136, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 4: ENJOYING THE ANNUAL DUCK FEAST

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This BLOG resumes the theme of links between the Georgian era and the present.1 To do that, it takes one remarkable case-history, that of the Wiltshire poet, Stephen Duck (c.1705-56). [Yes, that was his real name] He was the son of an impoverished agricultural labourer. It’s likely that both his parents were illiterate. Yet Stephen Duck not only grew to gain poetic fame during his relatively short life but has been honoured ever since by an annual Duck Feast, held in his home village of Charlton, near Pewsey in Wiltshire.2

Undoubtedly, this convivial event must be the longest-running literary commemoration to be found anywhere in Britain. It is a manifestation of local community pride, as well as a tribute to creative poetic output from an obscure individual, whose merits helped him to rise in the world.

There were many such ‘shooting stars’ from modest backgrounds in eighteenth-century Britain. The expansion of towns and trade (and literacy) provided ample new opportunities for talent. Duck’s career was a classic case study in both opportunities and obstacles.

These Feasts (scheduled in early June) actually began during Duck’s lifetime. They were funded by a gift from a local bigwig, who gave a piece of land to the village in perpetuity. That provided a practical basis for the celebrations, initially confined to small numbers of men from Charlton village. A presiding host, known as the Chief Duck, welcomes guests and gives the toasts, while, over time, the format of the Feast has been adapted.

During the evening, verses from Stephen Duck’s first and most famous poem, The Thresher’s Labour (1730), are read aloud. His poetry has some elements of ornate diction. As a promising youth, he had been given access to the classics of English literature by his charity-schoolteacher and other local worthies. However, the striking feature of Duck’s most famous work was its gritty realism. The Georgian agricultural year relied upon intensive and monotonous manual labour. And, at the height of the harvest, threshing the grain was tough work, continuing unabated throughout a long summer’s day. Stephen Duck recalled the experience:

In briny Streams, our Sweat descends apace,

Drops from our Locks, or trickles down our Face.

No Intermission in our Work we know;

The noisy Threshal [two-handed flail] must for ever go.

Neighbours who toasted the man and his muse were happy to admire, if not necessarily to share, this hard toil. During the eighteenth century, a quiet re-evaluation of the importance of manual work was taking place. John Locke and, especially, Adam Smith explored the contribution of labour to the creation of economic value. And readers in their parlours appreciated verses by poets from varied walks of life, including the newly literate workers.

Duck was thus a portent of change. Another poet from ‘low-life’ was Ann Yearsley (1753-1806), the Bristol ‘milk-woman’.3 She flourished a generation after Duck, with the support of a literary patron. Another example was the little-known James Woodhouse (1735-1820), ‘the shoemaker poet’, who eventually made a living as a bookseller.4 And in the early nineteenth century, John Clare (1793-1864), a farm labourer’s son from Northamptonshire, wrote poems of anguished beauty.5

All found it hard to progress from early success to something more permanent. The one exception was Scotland’s brilliant balladeer, Robert Burns (1759-96), the son of an Ayrshire tenant farmer.6 Financially, he always lived from hand to mouth, never attaining great riches. He did, however, have some ballast from his post as an exciseman [tax collector]. That enabled Burns to pour out his evocative poems and songs – thus mightily extending his audience. Today, he is honoured by the now world-wide tradition of annual Burns Night festivals,7 on a scale far, far exceeding the Duck Feast in Wiltshire.

By contrast, Stephen Duck lacked a steady profession. For a while, he enjoyed royal patronage and a pension from Queen Caroline, wife of George II. Yet, after her death in 1737, his career stalled. Duck later took orders as an Anglican clergyman. After all, there were major literary figures within the eighteenth-century Church of England – Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne being two outstanding exemplars.

Nonetheless, the clerical life did not suit Duck. Quite possibly he found that the social transition from the fields into literary and professional society, without a secure income, was too psychologically unsettling. Stephen Duck was also, in this great age of satire, the butt of robust teasing for his plebeian origins. And his best-known poem was quickly parodied, as The Thresher’s Miscellany (1730) – penned by an anonymous author who called himself Arthur Duck.8

It’s not easy, however, to read another’s heart. Stephen Duck’s life continued. He married twice; had children. It was some time before his career ran definitively into the sands. But, in 1756, he committed suicide.

Ultimately, Stephen Duck became and remained a quiet symbol of social advancement and literary change. He was not the only impoverished Georgian labourer’s son to gain fame. Captain James Cook (1728-79), the global explorer, came from a similar background. Yet, in his case, the navy provided a career structure (and a route to controversy via the mutual meetings/misunderstandings of global cultures).9 Cook’s name is now commemorated in many locations around the world. There is even a crater on the moon, named after him.

Stephen Duck, by contrast, is celebrated in Charlton in Wiltshire, not with a name-plate but, aptly enough, with a Feast. Just what was needed after a long day’s labour in the fields, as Duck had specified:

A Table plentifully spread we find,

And Jugs of humming Ale, to cheer the Mind …

ENDNOTES:

1 For context, see P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds & Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (2022); and website: https://www.thegeorgiansdeedsandmisdeeds.com.

2 R. Davis, Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet (Orono, Maine, 1926).

3 A. Yearsley, Poems on Several Occasions (1785; reissued, 1994); R. Southey, Lives of Uneducated Poets (1836), pp. 125-34; K. Andrews, Ann Yearsley and Hannah More, Patronage and Poetry: The Story of a Literary Relationship (2015).

4 [J. Woodhouse], Poems on Sundry Occasions, by James Woodhouse a Journeyman Shoemaker (1764).

5 E. Blunden (ed.), Sketches in the Life of John Clare, Written by Himself (1974); J. Bate, John Clare’s New Life (Cheltenham, 2004); S. Kövesi, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History (2017).

6 I. McIntyre, Robert Burns: A Life (1995; 2001); R. Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (2011); G.S. Wilkie, Robert Burns: A Life in Letters (Glasgow, 2011).

7 PJC, BLOG/ 133 (Jan. 2022), in https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs.

8 A. Duck [pseud.], The Thresher’s Miscellany (1730).

9 J. Robson (ed.), The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia (2004).

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Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) in full clown costume, brandishing a bottle of port, his pockets bulging with comic props.

MONTHLY BLOG 134, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 2

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) in full clown costume,
brandishing a bottle of port,
his pockets bulging with comic props.

Well, here is an unusual Georgian celebration but a congenial one. As part of the professionalization of many industrial and service occupations,1 the ancient trade of clowning in the eighteenth century came into its own. With population and urban growth, the number of theatres and circuses across Britain also multiplied. They provided evening and holiday entertainments for populations without TVs and radios, let alone without mobile phones and social media.

One who made his name as dancer, actor, comedian and all-round entertainer was Joseph Grimaldi.2 In 1778, he was born in London into an acting family, of Italian ancestry. He began performing as a child. And he threw himself into his roles with great physical energy, getting a number of injuries which took their toll in his later years.

The part that he made especially his own was the clown in the English Harlequinade, which was a theatrical burlesque upon the story of Harlequin and Columbine. Grimaldi was so successful and popular that other clowns were named after him as ‘Joey’. His trademark ‘whiteface’ also became much copied by his fellow artistes.

Grimaldi had the confidence, above all, to develop the art of comic interaction with his audiences. One of his famous catch-phrases was: ‘Well, here we are again’. Remarks of that sort indicated to his audiences that it was ok to sit back and be amused. Backchat augmented the collective sense of community and familiarity. It did not free the clown from the obligation to be funny. But it helped by getting audiences into a good mood – and into a state of expectation. Grimaldi’s clown mask and costume thus gave him a head start.

Nonetheless, there was a certain pressure in performing regularly and being always expected to provoke laughter. Grimaldi, who constantly played the London theatres and also toured extensively, was caught in an all-consuming professional role, calling upon both intense physical agility and a keen sense of social satire. He fused traditional slapstick with an urban knowingness and irreverence. It was a demanding combination; and it was not surprising that, from time to time, Grimaldi fell out with theatre producers – and eventually with his own family. He retired from the stage, reluctantly, in 1823 (in his mid-forties), although he returned for occasional benefit performances. In his last years, he was often depressed, physically ailing, and short of money.

Yet Grimaldi on stage epitomised the joy of unbridled laughter. He became the ‘quintessential’ clown. A sort of secular patron-saint of the role. By the mid-nineteenth century, his comic qualities had become almost proverbial. Oldsters would shake their heads and say: Ah! You should have seen Grimaldi!’

Professional clowns who followed in his footsteps were glad to have such a sparkling role model. In Islington, a small park bearing his name is located just off the Pentonville Road. It lies in the former burial grounds of an Anglican Chapel, where Grimaldi is buried. A new public artwork there is dedicated to him and to Charles Dibdin (1768-1833), the dramatist and theatrical proprietor.

Moreover – and here is the February link – on the first Sunday in February each year an Annual Clowns Service is held in Holy Trinity Church, Hackney, East London. The event has been held annually since the mid-1940s. And it is attended by hundreds of clowns, all in full costume.

What a tribute to the power of memory, to the joy of shared laughter, and to the impact of a pioneering life. Today, there are many brilliant comedians – on stages, in circuses, in print, and on all forms of social media. All praiseworthy, some truly hilarious! Ah! [but] you should have seen Grimaldi!’

ENDNOTES:

1 For context, see P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995).

2 H.D. Miles, The Life of Joseph Grimaldi, With Anecdotes of his Contemporaries (1838; and later reprints); A.M. Stott, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian (Edinburgh, 2010).

 

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MONTHLY BLOG 123, THE PEOPLING OF BRITAIN: PROPOSED SCHOOLS COURSE FOR TEENAGERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

123.1 Black-and-white diagram showing ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman’ on the move:
© binary template from research.net (2021)

Humans are a globe-trotting species;1 and the people of Britain are notable exponents of that trait. In fact, continental Europe’s sizeable offshore islands, with their long maritime tradition, are among the world’s most hybrid communities. Its people come and go. Many stop and stay. Others move on and depart, and, not infrequently, return. In the process, their histories say much about both the culturally positive and negative aspects of migration.

For that reason, there’s a great case for a schools course for British teenagers to study ‘The Peopling of Britain’, from the earliest times until now. Everybody’s family plays a part in the collective story. Such a course can be located within Modern History, or Sociology, or Civics: and it can easily be associated with individual Roots Projects, in which students discuss their history with older members of the family.2

Such themes need to be addressed with care and sensitivity. Not all families are happy to uncover past secrets, if secrets there be. Some are happy to be revealed as ‘stayers’. Yet not all families are satisfied with staying put. Conversely, not all cases of migration are happy ones. And some adopted children don’t know their full family history. They especially need thoughtful and sensitive help in tracing their roots, in so far as that’s possible.3 But they can also benefit from understanding their adoptive families’ stories, which show how population mixing happens from day-to-day, as part of ordinary life. These are all crucial issues for young adults as they grow up and find their places in a complex society. So it is helpful to confront the long history of ‘the peopling of Britain’ in a supportive class environment, with supportive teachers.

One immediate effect is to provide historical perspective. Population movement into and out of Britain is far from a recent invention. It goes back to the very earliest recorded settlements by Celts and Basques; and has continued ever since. In 1701 the novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe amused his readers by poetically lampooning the mongrel heritage of The True-Born Englishman:

‘The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit;

And with the English-Saxon all Unite.’4

He was not intent on disparagement. On the contrary, he was glorying in the country’s diversity. Moreover, Defoe was writing about the English as they had recruited population in the millennia before 1066. After that date, the Norman French invaders followed in 1066, Dutch and Walloon religious refugees arrived in the sixteenth century; French Huguenot, German, Irish, and Caribbean migrants settled from the eighteenth century onwards; and many others have followed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Canada, North and South America; from the Middle East; from India, Pakistan, China, and the Far East, including the Philippines; from many parts of Africa; from Australia and New Zealand; as well as from Scandinavia, from across central, southern and eastern Europe – and, on a small scale, from Russia.5

Defoe’s point, as he explained in the  Preface to the 1703 edition of The True-Born Englishman, was that population migration was and is normal. Accordingly, he explained that: ‘I only infer, that an English Man, of all Men ought not to despise Foreigners as such, and I think the Inference is just, since what they are today, we were yesterday; and tomorrow they will be like us’.6

Of course, migration has not always been easy. That is a big, obvious and important point. There have been tensions, hostilities, riots, rejection, and simmering bitterness.7 But such responses should not therefore be brushed under the historical carpet. Instead, it is helpful for students to explore: why tensions emerge in some circumstances; and not in others. And in some periods; but not in others? What factors help integration? And which factors impeded cohesion? The answers include crucial contextual factors, like the availability of work and housing. And they also highlight the behaviour both of host communities and of migrant groups, including rival languages, religions, and differing cultural attitudes – for example to the role of women.

At the same time, migration has its positive and dynamic side. The acceptance of social pluralism, for example with different religions worshipping peacefully side by side, is a useful civic art, in a world full of different religious groups. Equally, learning from and sharing the global diversity of food and music adds much to cultural creativity. And the same applies across the board, in terms of generating and sharing the global stock of knowledge, to which all cultures contribute.

Moreover, there is one quietly successful – almost secret – experience that underpins migration, which many students’ own family histories will reveal. That is, the very great extent of intermarriage between these migrant groups, especially over time. (Needless to say, not all the unions between people from different backgrounds were actually legal ones; but ‘intermarriage’ is the demographers’ term not just for sexual encounters but for all unions which produced children). Such relationships happen across and between different ethnic, religious, and social groups, even when forbidden. Romeo and Juliet are the tragic theatrical representations of a human story of love despite barriers.

It is certainly a common experience for Britons, who delve back into their ancestry, to find forebears from a variety of ethnic, religious and geographical origins. Equally, many known migrants to Britain from ‘foreign parts’ have descendants who merge seamlessly into the population today. One example stands proxy for many. The ancestry of Lord ‘Bill’ Wedderburn, a noted Labour lawyer and politician (1927-2012), stretches back, on his father’s side, to Robert Wedderburn, the Jamaican-born radical and anti-slavery campaigner (1762-c.1835). They couldn’t meet in daily life; but they do meet in the pages of British history – complete with their intent gazes and small frown lines between the eyes.

123.2 (L) Jamaican-born Robert Wedderburn (1762-c.1835), anti-slavery campaigner, and (R) his descendant, Bill Wedderburn, lawyer & Labour politician (1927-2012).

Incidentally, Britain’s long-standing aversion to national identity papers made it hard for the authorities in earlier times to track the location of migrants. Hence many ‘foreigners’ quietly Anglicised their names and disappeared from the official record. That situation contrasted, for example, with non-Islamic newcomers into the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. They were required, in theory at least, to wear distinctive dress, featuring specifically coloured turbans to indicate their religious/ethnic origins.8 But all such regulations were difficult to sustain over time, as migrant families became established over successive generations.

Studying these issues provides a long-term perspective on issues of social and personal sensitivity. The Schools’ curriculum tends to be divided into chunks around specific periods of history – often very recent ones. But it’s good for teenagers to study some long-term trends. History is rightly not taught today as one inevitable success story. Old Whig views of ‘the March of Progress’ have been discarded in the light of chronic warfare, famines, genocides, racism, chronic poverty, and sundry catastrophes. And an alternative Marxist view of history as unending class struggle, leading to the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, has also been revealed as a massive over-simplification.9

Yet all British students can study with benefit the long-term peopling of the country in which they live. They will confront conflict, but also cooperation. Enmities but also love. They will learn how and why people move – and how societies can learn to cope with migration. These complex legacies impact not only upon society at large but also upon all individuals. (At the same time, too, there is a parallel story of the massive British diaspora around the world).10 Understanding the history of humanity’s chronic globe-trotting is part of learning to be simultaneously a British citizen and a global one.

ENDNOTES:

1 L.L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Harlow, 1995).

2 See companion-piece PJC BLOG/122 (Feb.2021), ‘Proposed Roots Project for Teenagers’. And relevant analysis in R. Coleman, ‘Why We Need Family History Now More than Ever’, FamilySearch, 26 Sept. 2017: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/family-history-2.

3 See e.g. J. Rees, Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family-Friendly Approach (2009); J. Waterman and others, Adoption-Specific Therapy: A Guide to Helping Adopted Children and their Families Thrive (Washington DC, 2018); A. James, The Science of Parenting Adopted Children: A Brain-Based, Trauma-Informed Approach to Cultivating Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Moral Development (2019).

4 D. Defoe, The True-Born Englishman (1703), lines 25-26.

5 J. Walvin, Passage to Britain: Immigration in British History and Politics (Harmondsworth, 1984); P. Panayi, An Immigration History of Britain: Multicultural Racism since 1800 (Harlow, 2010); M. Spafford and D. Lyndon, Migrants to Britain, c.1250 to Present (2016).

6 Defoe, True-Born Englishman, Preface to 1703 edn.

7 A.H. Richmond, Immigration and Ethnic Conflict (Basingstoke, 1988); R.M. Dancygier, Immigration and Conflict in Europe (Cambridge, 2010).

8 D. Quataert, ‘Clothing Laws, State and Society in the Ottoman Empire, 1720-1829’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 29 (1997), pp. 403-25.

9 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 74-5, 174-8; and idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and Till Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert; transl. as Obsession with the Here-and-Now: Concepts of Time in the Twentieth Century, (Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91, esp. pp. 78-80, 83.

10 E. Richards, Britannia’s Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (2004).

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MONTHLY BLOG 119, THE FELINE MUSE IN THE LONG EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY

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Fig.1: William Hogarth’s alert cat, ears pricked, teeth bared, claws unleashed, and intent gaze fixed upon its notional prey (a caged bird)– revealing the feral cat within the domestic pet. Source: detail from Hogarth’s Portrait of the Graham Children (1742).

Fig.1: William Hogarth’s alert cat, ears pricked, teeth bared, claws unleashed, and intent gaze fixed upon its notional prey (a caged bird)– revealing the feral cat within the domestic pet.
Source: detail from Hogarth’s Portrait of the Graham Children (1742).

Cats in Britain changed their roles decisively in the course of the long eighteenth century.1 They switched from being rat-catchers-in-chief into much treasured domestic pets. Of course, the changeover was not absolute. There were pet cats before this period; and there were rat- and mouse-catching cats long afterwards. Nonetheless, this era was a prime time of change, as Britain launched into its new history as a world leader in terms of urbanisation, commercialisation and (later) industrialisation. Families in town houses increasingly cultivated the companionship of cats not as on-site pest controllers (though that might be an agreeable by-product) but as domestic pets.

Two quick pointers confirm the process of adaptation. One was the growing number of men who worked as professional rat-catchers, undertaking the task more systematically than did domestic cats, which tended to fall asleep after dining well. And the second was the emergence of a regular market in pet food. Vendors known as ‘cat’s-meat men’ (who actually included a few women) walked the town streets with barrows of chopped horsemeat, purchased from the knackers’ yards. Such supplies preceded the tinned catfood which took over the market from the 1920s. Owners wanted their sleek, well-fed pets constantly on hand – not hungrily prowling in garrets and basements in search of food.

In this changed domestic environment, it was not surprising that many felines, snugly ensconced indoors, provided welcome companionship to authors sitting for long hours at their sedentary profession. Much the most famous eighteenth-century cat is the black-coated Hodge, which patiently kept Dr Johnson company while he toiled over his great Dictionary of the English Language (1755). This animal was not in fact the only feline pet in the household. But he was considered to be Johnson’s favourite. (In 1997 a sympathetic statue to Hodge was erected in Gough Square, outside the London townhouse which Dr Johnson rented between 1748 and 1759. Sometimes tourists place coins on the plinth or hang ribbons on the statue, for good luck).2

Other literary figures who were known as cat lovers included the writer and art connoisseur Horace Walpole; the mystic poet Christopher Smart; the legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who was one of the first protagonists of animal rights; the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, whose home at Greta Hall in Keswick was full of cats; the ‘Gothic’ author Mary Shelley; and the novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose tabby named Hinse (sometimes spelt Hinx) reportedly tyrannised over his pack of dogs.

Moreover, at least fourteen eighteenth-century poets were inspired by the feline muse. Their ranks included (chronologically) Anne Finch; John Gay, James Thomson; Thomas Gray; Christopher Smart; Percival Stockdale; Anna Seward; William Cowper; William Wordsworth; P.B. Shelley; Joanna Baillie; John Keats; John Clare – and (out of chronological sequence because his feline theme was somewhat exceptional) William Blake. His beautiful and enigmatic ballad saluted the ‘Tyger, tiger, burning bright’ (1794).3 But all the rest, however surprising it may seem (the ‘romantic’ Wordsworth? Keats? Shelley?), wrote poems about domestic cats.

Sometimes they wrote about specific animals. So the poet and anti-slavery campaigner Percival Stockdale wrote verses to commemorate Hodge, the favourite cat of his close friend Dr Johnson. While others wrote about archetypal cats. The poet and hymnodist William Cowper used a feline example to point a moral. His poem to The Retired Cat (written 1791) told the tale of a cat which was shut by mistake into a chest of drawers and left for long hours without food. It taught the imperious puss the invaluable lesson that the world did not revolve around her. But the moral was universal, as Cowper explained: ‘Beware of too sublime a sense/ Of your own worth and consequence!’ 4

Having enjoyed all these poems, my award for the weakest of these effusions goes to one by P.B. Shelley. His epigrammatic Verses on a Cat (c.1800) stress that the causes of suffering among all living creatures are diverse: ‘You would not easily guess/ All the modes of distress/ Which torture the tenants of earth’.5 In one specific case, however, the problem was clear:

But this poor little cat
Only wanted a rat,
To stuff its own little maw

It’s unfair, however, to laugh at Shelley’s plonking verse. It was an example of his very youthful wordplay, at the age of 8 or 9; and not written for posterity. Indeed, for a neophyte poet, the sentiments were impressively mature. Anyway it was saved by Shelley’s sister and published after the poet’s early death aged thirty, when no doubt all mementoes were being treasured.

In fact, all these eighteenth-century feline verse tributes are notable in their different ways. They range from tender to comic; from well-observed to schematic. Collectively, they confirm the ubiquity of cats in the eighteenth-century domestic scene.

Standing out from the pack, two poems record particularly graceful tributes to felinity. Best known is Thomas Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes (1748).6 It’s wryly witty. And it ends with the poet’s sage observation that covetousness should not be taken too far.

Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize,
Nor all that glisters, gold.

Most wonderfully, however, Christopher Smart’s mid-century ruminations on his cat Jeoffry evoke a real living animal. The 74-line section appears within a much longer mystic-philosophical verse outpouring, entitled Jubilate Agno [Rejoice in the Lamb of God]. The work was not published until long after the poet’s death; and these days the Jeoffry section is often extracted as a separate poem. It is too long to quote in its entirety here. But it is written by a cat-lover, who, whilst struggling with personal anguish,7 wanted to record the special charm of his companion Jeoffry: ‘For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery’.8

As cats came to reign majestically upon the domestic hearth, the feline muse was considerably enhanced. No disrespect to other indoor pets. Or to those magnificent outdoor companions: dogs9 and horses.10 But the feline mixture of caution, companionship, and curiosity makes them potent triggers to innovative thought and cultural creativity. As well as featuring in traditional folkloric tales and magical spells, cats are now commemorated in novels, poems, art, cartoons, films, songs, opera, musicals, philosophical debates and scientific concepts (hello/goodbye to Schrödinger’s cat) and, of course, proverbial sayings. It’s seriously enough to make a cat laugh …

ENDNOTES:

1 For further context, see P.J. Corfield, ‘“For I will Consider my Cat Jeoffry”: Cats and Literary Creativity in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, work-in-progress for publication 2021.

2 But Hodge has rivals in fame. See P.J. Corfield, ‘An Eighteenth-Century Folly Builder, and Cat Lover’, Monthly BLOG 117 (Sept. 2020); and idem, ‘Commemorating Another Feisty Eighteenth-Century Sea-Going Cat’, Monthly BLOG 118 (Oct. 2020).

3 W. Blake (1757-1827), The Tyger (1794), in K. Raine (ed.), A Choice of Blake’s Verse (1970), p. 61.

4 W. Cowper (1731-1800), The Retired Cat (1791) in W. Hayley (ed.), The Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper … (Chichester, 1803), Vol. 1, p. 258.

5 P.B. Shelley (1792-1822), Verses on a Cat (1800; publ. 1858), in T. Hutchinson (ed.), The Chief Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1907), p. 829.

6 T. Gray, On the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes (1748), in F.T. Palgrave (ed.), The Golden Treasury … (1861; 1959), pp. 138

7 C. Mounsey, Christopher Smart: Clown of God (2001); N. Curry, Christopher Smart (Horndon, 2005).

8 C. Smart (1722-71), Jubilate Agno (c.1759-63; 1st pub. 1939), in idem, A Selection of Poetry, ed. D. Wheeler (2012), pp. 43, 123.

9 F. Jackson (ed.), Faithful Friends: Dogs in Life and Literature (1997); K.W. Chez, Victorian Dogs, Victorian Men: Affect and Animals in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Columbus, Ohio, 2017).

10 K. Raber and T.J. Tucker, The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline and Identity in the Early Modern World (Basingstoke, 2005); S. Forrest, The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History (2016).

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MONTHLY BLOG 116, THE LONG EIGHTEENTH CENTURY’S MOST AMAZING LADY RECLUSE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Image of Lady Hester Stanhope
(1776-1839)
Garbed as an Oriental Magus

More than matching the fame of the most notable male recluses of eighteenth-century Britain was the renown of the amazing Lady Hester Stanhope.She not only cut herself off from her aristocratic family background to live remotely but did so, at first in grand style and then as a recluse, in the Lebanon.

Her story indicates that there were some remarkable options open to independent-minded women, with independent fortunes but no family attachments. In fact, there was quite a substantial amount of female solitude in the eighteenth century.The caricature view, which asserts that every woman was under the domestic tutelage of either a husband or a father was just that – a caricature.

There were plenty of female-headed households listed in contemporary urban enumerations; and a number of these were formed by widows living alone. Many lived in the growing spas and resorts, where low-cost lodgings were plentiful. Some would have other family members living with them; but the poorest were completely alone. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817), the protagonist Anne Elliott meets in Bath an old school-friend, the widowed Mrs Smith. She is impecunious and disabled. Her lodgings consist of two small rooms; and she is ‘unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant’. Nonetheless, solitary living was not the same as being a recluse. Local gossip networks helped to counter isolation, as Jane Austen well understood. Hence, although socially remote from Bath’s smart visitors, Mrs Smith gets all the up-to-date news ‘through the short cut of a laundress and a waiter’.As a result, Anne Elliott is surprised to discover how much information about herself and her family is already known to her old friend.

Lady Hester Stanhope was utterly different. Lively, charming, and wealthy, she was the daughter of the 3rd Earl Stanhope and, in her late twenties (1803-6) acted as political hostess for her uncle Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Her social elevation and experience of life at the heart of government gave her immense self-confidence. But Pitt’s death in 1806 left her looking for a role.

In retrospect, Stanhope’s subsequent adventures indicate something of the social plight – or, put more positively, the challenges – facing talented and spirited upper class women, who did not wish (or manage) to marry or to go into business. There were plenty of female commercial entrepreneurs, usually of ‘middling’ social origins.And there was a positive ‘femocracy’ of high-born women who pulled the political strings behind the scenes.5 But these were generally married ladies, hosting salons and gatherings for their particular party affiliation, under the ‘shelter’ of their husband’s rank and wealth. The options were much more limited for a single aristocratic female, albeit one with a modest state pension granted after the death of Pitt (at his request). In 1810 Stanhope began to travel extensively in the Middle East; and she never returned to Britain. Initially, she had a sizeable entourage with her; and she attracted the attention of crowds as she toured. By the end of her life, however, she was running out of money and had become a complete recluse.

During her long self-exile, she did a number of remarkable things. Firstly, she adopted her own version of male oriental dress. She sported a velvet robe, embroidered trousers, soft slippers, a swathed turban. and no veil. So attired, she caused a sensation on her travels. In 1813, crowds gathered to see the ‘Queen of the Desert’ as she rode triumphantly on horseback into the remote and beautiful city of Palmyra, having crossed the territory of potentially hostile Bedouins. That moment was, for her, one of intense joy. Her garb and demeanour signalled that she had cut herself off from her previous life; and, even more pointedly, that she rejected any submissive female role, whether in the occident or orient. She was visibly her own person. Indeed, she was a grand personage, meeting local power brokers and Ottoman officials as a potentate in her own right.

A second notable initiative happened in 1815. Stanhope at the age of 39 broke new ground in terms of female self-employment – literally, when she tried some pioneering archaeology.She won permission from the Turkish authorities to excavate the ancient port of Ashkelon, north of Gaza. There were disputes, both then and later, about the outcomes of this search for fabled treasure. But Stanhope’s method of basing dirt-archaeology upon documentary evidence from medieval manuscripts showed that she was not attempting a random smash-and-grab raid. But, either way, it was not an adventure that she ever repeated.

Instead, it was a moment of religious revelation which constituted Stanhope’s third claim to fame – and which governed her behaviour for the rest of her life. At some stage c.1815 she was told by Christian sooth-sayers that she would become the bride of the Messiah, whose return to Earth was imminently due. Nothing could be more aptly dramatic. Stanhope accepted her destiny; and settled down to wait. She found two noble and distinctive horses, which were carefully tended for years, awaiting the moment when the returned Messiah and his bride would ride forth to judge the world at the Second Coming.

Excited prophecies of the End of the World can be found in any era,7 and were particularly rampant in Europe in the febrile aftermath of the French Revolution and the prolonged Napoleonic wars. At different times, individuals have claimed to be the returned Messiah – or to be closely connected with such a figure – or to know the exact date of the Second Coming. In the Christian tradition, it is rare for women to claim divinity or near-divinity on their own account. However, in 1814 Joanna Southcott, aged 64, announced that she was pregnant with the new Messiah and, briefly, attracted a large following, until she died of a stomach tumour, without producing the miraculous child. During her lifetime, she had instituted her own church, with a male minister to officiate at the services. And the Southcottian movement has survived as a small sect, with numerous twists and turns in its fortunes, into the twenty-first century.8

By contrast, Lady Hester Stanhope’s vision remained an individual destiny. Visitors approached her in her Lebanese retreat, impressed by her magus-like reputation. But Stanhope did not attempt to found a church or a supporting movement. Instead, she settled in to wait patiently. That response is a not uncommon one when a divine revelation is not immediately realised. True believers keep faith. It is the timing, not the vision, which is inaccurate. So the answer is to wait, which is what Stanhope indomitably did. Living initially in first one and then another disused monastery, she retreated eventually to a conical hill-top site with panoramic views at Joun, eight miles (13k) inland from Sidon. There she lived as the de facto local magnate. She was accepted within the religious mix of Muslim, Christian and Druze communities that has long characterised the Lebanon; and she tried to protect the Druze from persecution on grounds of their distinctive blend of Islam, gnosticism and neo-platonism. Doctrinal rigidity was very far from her personal mindset.

Only with time did Stanhope become a real recluse. By the mid-1830s, her original English companions had either died or returned home. Her funds ran low and she was besieged by creditors. The servants, allegedly, began to steal her possessions. Lady Hester Stanhope received her few last visitors after dark, refusing to let them see more than her face and hands. Reportedly, she suffered from acute depression. The Messiah did not come. Yet there was a sort of glory in her faithfulness. Her life’s trajectory was utterly distinctive, not one that could be emulated by others. Buoyed by sufficient funds, she made an independent life in an initially strange country, far from the political salons of early nineteenth-century London. And she persisted, even when impecunious. Stanhope died in her sleep aged 63, still awaiting her destiny – and having made her own legend.

ENDNOTES

1 There are many biographies: see e.g. K. Ellis, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope (2008); and a pioneering survey by C.L.W. Powlett, The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope (1897).

2 B. Hill, Women Alone: Spinsters in England, 1660-1850 (2001).

3 J. Austen, Persuasion (1817/18; in Harmondsworth, 1980 edn), pp. 165-7, 200.

4 N. Phillips, Women in Business, 1700-1850 (Woodbridge, 2006); H. Barker, Family and Business during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford, 2017).

5 E. Chalus, Elite Women in British Political Life, c.1754-90 (Oxford, 2005).

6 For a sympathetic account, see https://womeninarchaeology.com/2016/05/05/lady-hester-lucy-stanhope-the-first-modern-excavator-of-the-holy-land/.

7 J.M. Court, Approaching the Apocalypse: A Short History of Christian Millenarianism (2008); C. Wessinger (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Millenialism (Oxford, 2011).

8 J.K. Hopkins, A Woman to Deliver her People: Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution (Austin, Texas, 1982); J.D.M. Derrett, Prophesy in the Cotswolds, 1803-1947 (Shipston-on-Stour, 1994); P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995; 2000), pp. 106-8. 124, 139; J. Shaw, Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a female Messiah and her Followers (2012).

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MONTHLY BLOG 114, SELF-ISOLATION EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STYLE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig.1 Engraving (1808) of Lord Rokeby (1713-1800),
a famous eighteenth-century self-isolator,
who looked like a wise old wizard
but whose actual message was obscure.

It’s not original to note that humans are a highly social species. But it’s only now becoming generally appreciated just how damaging a period of prolonged and enforced isolation from others can be. Basically, it’s bad news for both physical and mental health.1 Of course, some individuals do embrace silence and seek solitude. Maybe for spiritual reasons. Yet such conscious choices, which can be revoked at any time, are very different from enforced solitude, not of an individual’s seeking.

The eighteenth century in Britain provided two quirky individuals who famously created their own isolated lifestyles, cushioned by their private incomes. So what can be learned from their stories? No great revelation of enlightenment emerges. Instead, the two men have been slotted into the history of zany English eccentricity.2 They certainly both fitted into that category plausibly enough. Yet do their lifestyles convey some further message for humanity in the early summer of today’s special virus-avoiding Lockdown?

One of these isolates was the well-connected Matthew Robinson, 2nd Baron Rokeby (1713-1800). He was a landowner, with legal training and literary interests. In his thirties (1747-61), he became MP for Canterbury. There was nothing to suggest his impending eccentricity. Anyhow, at a certain point, he developed a passion for daily immersion in water for hours on end. At first, he walked from his country estate near Hythe (Kent), on the edge of Romney Marsh, to swim in the sea, bathing for hours until he was exhausted and had to be rescued. Then he constructed a private pool in a glass-house attached to his country mansion, which he refused to heat. Again he stayed for hours in the water, refusing company. He got nourishment chiefly from an infusion of beef tea; refused to see doctors; and claimed that he could best worship naturally, in the water and under the stars. Occasional visitors were treated to readings of his lengthy poems.

When Rokeby (rarely) appeared in public, he was taken for a foreigner, on account of his flowing locks and massive beard. Anecdotes circulated about his lifestyle; and prints were engraved (as shown above), to illustrate his hirsute appearance. His younger sister, the highly sociable literary lady and bluestocking Mrs Montagu, wrote sardonically that her brother had become a modern Diogenes: ‘he flies the life of London, and leads a life of such privacy and seriousness as looks to the beholder like wisdom’.3 Ouch. Evidently his nearest and dearest were not impressed. His two younger sisters remained busy and productive: Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800), later dubbed ‘Queen of the Blues’, and Sarah Scott (1723-95), the novelist and translator, whose Millennium Hall (1763) envisaged a harmonious community of women without men.4

For his part, Rokeby wrote and said nothing memorable, despite looking ever more like a wizard in his later years, He did not do anything to foster swimming or sea-bathing. His eccentric pastime remained a purely private matter, which ended only with his peaceful death in bed, unmarried and childless. His estate and the barony passed to a cousin.

What did all it mean? Rokeby’s lifestyle suggests a personal quest for ecological simplicity, before there was an ecological movement to join him or for him to join. He does not seem to have been personally unhappy; or, at any rate, did not announce any disquiet. Yet his story seems at very least to have been one of unrealised talents, particularly when contrasted with his siblings.

A second case of self-isolation was that of John Tallis (1675-1755). As reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine, he stayed in bed for the last 30 years of his life, swathed in coverings and with a peg on his nose, in a darkened, draught-proof room in a country inn at Burcot (Worcestershire).5 He saw no-one but a few occasional visitors, impelled by curiosity – and his servants, who replaced his bed annually.

Insofar as he justified his strange lifestyle choice, Tallis claimed, to general bemusement, that his morbid fear of fresh air was triggered by an old beldame’s curse. Evidently, he had sufficient funds to pay for his lodging and minimal keep. And no family intervened to try to change his mind. Throughout, Tallis declined to seek medical or even spiritual help for what seemed to be a prolonged and debilitating physical and/or psychological malady.

By the end of his life, he was becoming classed among the ranks of great British eccentrics. His sad tale probably provided the inspiration for William Wordsworth’s later ballad The True Story of Goody Blake and Harry Gill (1798). That jingling poem recounted a malediction directed at a wealthy but hard-hearted farmer, who had no compassion for a poor old woman gleaning in his hedgerow.6 His penalty for an icy heart was then to lie abed, forever chilled:

Oh!  what’s the matter?  what’s the matter?
What is’t that ails young Harry Gill?
That evermore his teeth they chatter,
Chatter, chatter, chatter still.
Of waistcoats Harry has no lack,
Good duffle grey, and flannel fine;
He has a blanket on his back,
And coats enough to smother nine.

Wordsworth’s imaginative evocation was much more vivid than anything communicated by Tallis, who gave no further explanation of his condition. The poet’s moral was that a flinty heart brought its own penalty. Property-owners should not begrudge the poor who gleaned in the fields and hedgerows, Wordsworth concluded pointedly.7

Tallis’s own inert self-isolation baffled everyone during his lifetime. Such a fatalistic belief in a personal curse already seemed like a relic of a bygone age, if that was indeed his motivation. It may simply have been an excuse for doing what he wanted, although his 30 year bed-rest did not seem very enjoyable. Certainly no witnesses to Tallis’s fate made any move to get him exorcised or the notional curse removed.

However, thanks to the transmuting power of poetry, this eccentric case of self-isolation prompted Wordsworth’s appeal for liberal warm-heartedness. ‘A-bed or up, by night or day;/ His teeth they chatter, chatter still,/ Now think, ye farmers all, I pray,/ Of Goody Blake and Harry Gill’. It’s always open to self-isolates to explain themselves to the wider world. But, if they don’t, then others will have a stab at doing so for them. After all, the moral is that isolates are not actually alone. The human community is watching, trying to detect a message.

ENDNOTES:

1 K.T. Rowe (ed.), Social Isolation, Participation and Impact upon Mental Health (New York, 2015); R. Fiorella, R. Morese and S. Palermo, Social Isolation: An Interdisciplinary View (2020).

2 J. Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (1875); E. Sitwell, The English Eccentrics (1933); D. Long, English Country House Eccentrics (Stroud, 2012); S.D. Tucker, Great British Eccentrics (Stroud, 2015).

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Robinson,_2nd_Baron_Rokeby.

4 J. Busse, Mrs Montagu, Queen of the Blues (1928); S.H. Myers, The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1990).

5 Gentleman’s Magazine (March 1753), p. 123.

6 J.A. Sharpe, A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England (2016), pp. 251-2.

7 W. Wordsworth, Poetical Works, ed. T. Hutchinson (1920), pp. 536-7.

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MONTHLY BLOG 78, WHO CARES? GETTING PEOPLE TO VOTE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Elections again! And public moodiness at being asked to decide on weighty matters once more. The last thing that Britain’s campaigners for a democratic franchise ever imagined was that electors, once enfranchised, would not use their votes. Was it for nothing that the democratic campaigners known as the Chartists in the 1840s were thrown into gaol? or that imprisoned suffragettes in the 1900s were force fed? But it’s turned out that achieving a flourishing democracy, defined as the full participation of all citizens in the political process, requires more than simply legislating to extend the franchise.
2017-06 No1 who-cares-1-620x250
People have to want to use their vote. One immediate possibility is to adopt the Australian system, where since 1924 it been compulsory for all citizens to register for elections and to cast a vote.1 Spoiling the ballot paper, to cast a non-vote, is allowed. It amounts to ‘abstaining in person’, to borrow a resonant phrase from Frank McGuire (an independent Irish Republican MP), when he travelled to the House of Commons from Belfast on 28 March 1979 but declined to vote to save the Callaghan government. It then fell by a margin of one vote, ushering in eleven years of Margaret Thatcher.

I personally hanker after the benefits of compulsory voting, provided that the system always gives scope for returning a blank paper. On the other hand, there are arguments against as well as for this process. Voters don’t always like it – their democratic choice? Hence some countries have switched from compulsory to optional systems. Take, for example, the Netherlands: in 1917, it introduced compulsory voting, along with the advent of a universal adult franchise; but in 1967 it abolished this requirement.

Another complication comes when voters resist compulsion, even while it remains their legal duty. That’s reported as happening in Brazil, which is the world’s largest country to have compulsory voting. Nonetheless, at the presidential election in 2014, over 30 million electors (about 21 percent of all those registered) did not vote. It’s still a good turnout but the sheer number of people flouting the law is very high. In effect, their aggregate non-participation means that compulsory voting has been de facto sidelined.

Anyway, in Britain this option is not on the political agenda. So what else might be done to encourage voting? One answer is instrumentalist. Tell young people in particular that their interests are being overlooked because their percentage participation has fallen steeply from the levels once taken as the norm in the postwar years. In 1992, 66% of young adults aged 18-24 and on the electoral register voted, compared with 38% in 2005 and 44% in 2015.2 And the decline is even larger, if the number of young people who are not on the electoral register is taken into account. No wonder politicians have turned their attention to the older generations and there is talk of ‘intergenerational warfare’.

It’s true that there are no reserved ‘student seats’, so young people’s votes are widely scattered across many constituencies. Hence many say (rather than ask): why bother? Nevertheless, politicians will get their statisticians to pore over survey data to see which demographic groups bothered to vote. So the answer is: you have to bother, to get noticed politically.

Yet it’s clearly not good enough to view the questions in purely instrumentalist terms. Voting means contributing to the full democratic community, not just calculating ‘what’s in it for me?’ So it’s sad and even sinister for the good health of a democracy to have lots of young people who are either apathetic or alienated. Spoiling one’s ballot paper is one thing. Not bothering to turn out to vote is bad news for society as a whole and also for the absentee young voters themselves. They are depriving themselves of constitutional involvement (no matter how dry and dusty) in the world in which they live: as it were, consigning themselves to victimhood.

So what can be done to encourage voting among the won’t-vote brigades of all ages? Some of the answers point to the politicians. Their campaigning styles, for example. Electors are alienated if those seeking their votes appear too robotic, lacking spontaneity and authenticity. Even more depends on politicians’ achievements in office. If they offer high and perform low, then cynicism becomes rife. (A degree of scepticism is good – but not corrosive cynicism).

There’s an additional major problem from the mainstream press, which loves melodrama. It slams politicians as robotic if they conform boringly to the party line but equally attacks them as confused or ignorant or dastardly if they stray the tiniest bit off-message. Let alone the problems generated and multiplied endlessly by the social media, which encourage an unsavoury mix of either undue adulation or venomous personal hostility.3

Another big looming question focuses upon how much governments themselves can buck the big impersonal trends of global history. So many things – like international finance markets, international businesses, international social media, international terrorism, international crime, world-wide climate change, environmental pollution, and so forth – seem to operate beyond the current scope of democratic control and regulation, which is depressing, to say the least.4 If politicians in a national forum seem powerless, then no wonder that individual voters at grass roots level feel even less in control of their own or the nation’s destiny. But, in response to such challenges, the answers have to be more, not less, democratic engagement.

It’s not just the politicians who are responsible. So what about the voting process itself? Can the system be made more user-friendly? In the eighteenth century (in the minority of large constituencies with a wide franchise), voters cast their votes publicly.5 An election was a community occasion, with elements of the carnivalesque. Crowds turned out to hear the candidates speak from the open hustings and to cheer or boo the electors as they voted. Flags were flown and party favours sported. The fact that voters literally stood up to be counted, before all their friends and neighbours, made open voting the purest form of voting, in the opinion of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. It would force citizens to think of the public good, and not just their personal self-interest: ‘The best side of their character is that which people are anxious to show’.6

13.4 Rowlandson Westminster Election 1808

Fig.2 Rowlandson’s 1808 view of a Westminster parliamentary election, where candidates address the crowds from the specially constructed wooden hustings, erected in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden.

But, ever since the introduction of the secret ballot (1872 in Britain), the process of voting lost its element of community participation. And that’s become even more noticeable since the advent of postal voting on demand (2001 in Britain). The process has become not just secret but utterly individualised and secretive. No doubt that’s one of the reasons that the traditional party posters have virtually disappeared from people’s windows.

There were and are excellent reasons to protect electors from undue pressure. But it’s not good to lose the excitement and community involvement involved in an election, which is a collective event with a collective impact.

Perhaps there might be parties or at least a cup of tea on offer for those who vote in person in polling stations? And/or an on-line App for millions of people to record: ‘I’ve voted! Have you?’ And what about practice elections in schools? And constituency or regional Youth Parliaments? And networks of local societies – and/or student societies – linked for campaigning purposes? Let alone shop-floor democracy at work? And ways for isolated workers in large-scale enterprises to link up into organised networks? Plus, of course, an effective electoral registration system, which encourages rather than discourages people to get into the system.

Political life should never be a simple top-down process. Instead, democracy is an entire lifestyle and lifetime commitment to participation. Voters are invited to insert their own meanings into the processes. All the same, it’s no surprise that the Chartist demand for annual parliamentary elections is the only item of their visionary six-point programme that has not yet been adopted.7 Moreover, voters’ election-fatigue suggests that it is unlikely to gain mass support any time soon. Instead, it’s more important to revise and update the electoral processes to recover full community involvement in a true community event.

1 The information in this and the following two paragraphs comes from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_voting

2 E. Phelps, ‘Young Adults and Electoral Turnout in Britain: Towards a Generational Model of Political Participation’ (University of Sussex European Institute [SEI], Working Paper 92, 2006); ‘Why Aren’t Young People Voting?’ University of Warwick Background Paper’ (c.2006); and http://www.if.org.uk/archives/6576/how-high-was-youth-turnout-at-the-2015-general-election

3 Among a growing literature, see e.g. A. Bruns and others (eds), The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics (2015); T. Highfield, Social Media and Everyday Politics (Cambridge, 2016); S. Shaked (ed.), The Impact of Social Media on Collective Action (Oxford, 2017).

4 For a meditation on that theme, see J. Lanchester, ‘Between Vauxhall and Victoria’, in London Review of Books, 39/11 (1 June 2017), pp. 3.6.

5 See variously P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting, Standing Up to be Counted?’ Monthly BLOG/53 (May 2015), in https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/; and website ‘London Electoral History, 1700-1850’, www.londonelectoralhistory.com.

6 J.S. Mill, Considerations upon Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-64, esp. p. 164.

7 The Chartists’ six demands were: (1) universal adult male franchise (achieved in 1918; and matched by the adult female franchise in 1928); (2) voting by secret ballot (achieved in 1872); (3) equal representation via roughly equal sized-constituencies (implemented by an independent electoral commission from 1885 onwards); (4) no property qualification for candidates to stand as MP (achieved 1858); (5) payment for MPs (achieved 1911); and (6) annual parliamentary elections (not achieved). See M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007); D. Thompson, The Dignity of Chartism: Essays by Dorothy Thompson, ed. S. Roberts (2015).

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