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British Library 74/1881.d.8(26)

Think entertainment is violent today? The Victorians were much, much worse

There Will Be Fun! proclaims the tag line of the British Library’s latest exhibition, a show exploring the spectacle and sheer pleasure of Victorian entertainment through vibrant playbills and posters, and rare sound and film recordings. The pieces assembled expose a number of key themes, including the wonderful diversity of performance genres, the appetite for innovation and sensation, the increasingly commercial world of Victorian showbiz, and the growth of mass audiences. All good fun and relatively harmless. Or is it?

There is another story about Victorian entertainment that lies behind these jolly posters and harmless pantomimes, one which I would argue is as important for understanding modern British culture: that of the seemingly insatiable appetite for representations of violence among ordinary Victorians. From the opening of Queen Victoria’s reign until the last decades of the 19th century, men, women and even children were amused by images and descriptions of murder and mutilation which would today be regarded as shocking and unfit for public consumption.

Take, for instance, the popularity of increasingly elaborate pictures of execution. Some very crude depictions of hanging appeared on flimsy sheets sold at foot of the scaffold in the 18th century. But in the early decades of the 19th century, improvements in printing and changes to the penal code increased the public’s desire for such “artwork”. Fewer people, and essentially only murderers, were hanged by the accession of Queen Victoria, so the rarity of an execution combined with the sensational nature of the crime whetted public appetites.

A new song on the Mannings. British Library 1876.d.41. volume 2

Highly decorative broadsides were printed to inform about and commemorate in prose, verse and image the crime, the trial, the lead up to the execution and the execution itself. Hawkers selling these half-penny productions could be found in the streets of major British towns. But the largest sales were typically achieved on execution day. When James Greenacre, the Edgware Road Murderer, was executed in 1838, approximately 1.65m sheets were sold, a figure that rose to 2.5m for the execution of Maria and Frederick George Manning in 1849.

Murder souvenir mug, c. 1824. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, CC BY-SA

Nor did the public appetite subside after execution day. A violent material culture capitalised on a public desire to remember and even vicariously relive these gruesome events. Large quantities of cheap souvenirs were manufactured by Staffordshire potters and sold on urban streets, including earthenware figurines of murderers and victims and models of sites connected with their crimes.

Life-size reincarnations could also be found at popular waxworks museums, the most famous of which was Madame Tussaud’s on London’s Baker Street. Madame Tussaud’s expanded their Chamber of Horrors in response to public demand, and made concerted efforts to obtain authentic relics from the murder scenes and assemble faithful tableaux reconstructions.

Murder on stage

As early as the 1820s, theatre managers also became alert to the profits which could be made from performances based on recent murders. Among the collections of 19th century playbills kept by the British Library is one advertising a tragedy, The Gamblers, at the Surrey Theatre on London’s Southbank in 1823. Based on the murder of William Weare by John Thurtell near Watford, proprietors promised audiences “the identical horse and gig alluded to by the daily press in the accounts of the murder”.

But reenactments of topical murders formed only one type of violent drama found on the contemporary stage. Much more prominent was the murder melodrama. Theatre playbills, which were highly informative productions at this time, not only provided a textual description of the violent scenes in advertised plays, but from the 1840s, graphic illustrations as well.

The String of pearls or The Barber of Fleet Street. British Library C.140.d.6.

One of the most popular Victorian melodramas was the tale of demon barber Sweeney Todd, a heady mix of murder and cannibalism first performed in 1847. It was, in fact, an adaptation of an enormously successful serial novel, or “penny blood”, as this genre of cheap fiction sold in penny parts became known. A rare copy of the original Sweeney Todd story is held by the British Library, together with its second edition, several hundred pages longer with even more gruesome illustrations.

Just as contemporary murders helped to fuel interest in fictional murders, techniques used in melodrama and penny bloods were subsequently fed into the formula of violent crime reporting. Sweeney Todd’s publisher, Edward Lloyd, was also a founding father of the Sunday press, launching Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper in 1842. Its success, and that of other weekly newspapers, was largely attributable to its significant coverage of criminal justice and even aggressive marketing when reporting particularly notorious murders.

Reading Lloyd’s Weekly on a Sunday became commonplace for many working- and lower middle-class Victorians. Given the limited time available for leisure, the importance of the Sunday newspaper as a form of entertainment becomes clear.

Violent Victorians today

Some of this may be familiar to you. Discrete pieces – such as execution broadsides, or penny bloods – are occasionally brought out to titillate 21st century audiences, to satisfy our desire for a bit of rough in our education about the Victorians. Yet few have dared to expose this material in any significant quantity, to highlight the presence of very graphic violence in multiple, even connected, entertainment genres.

Violent entertainments fulfilled an important function in the evolution of modern British culture and society. They began to flourish right at the very moment when displays and expressions of actual violence were being brought under control and, as far as possible, suppressed. These gruesome and bloodthirsty representations provided an outlet, siphoning off much of the actual violence that had hitherto been expressed in all manner of social and political dealings, providing a crucial accompaniment to schemes for the reformation of manners and the taming of the streets.

But they also helped to carve out a new space for the enjoyment of violence in 20th and even 21st century popular culture. While the most extreme forms disappeared, or were repackaged for smaller and very specialised audiences, the continuing public appetite or need for violence continued to be satisfied by violent crime reporting, by nostalgic reenactments of melodramas, and eventually by violent films and video games.

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