Movers and Shakers of Victorian England

Jack Black (fl.1860)

Queen Victoria’s rat catcher

Jack Black, one of the low-life characters immortalised in Henry Mayhew’s monumental London Labour and the London Poor, was renowned during the 1850s as the capital’s most efficient exterminator of vermin, and distributed handbills proclaiming himself ‘Rat and Mole Destroyer to Her Majesty.'

A rat catcher from childhood, Black’s principal income came from supplying the animals by the hundred to publicans who organised ‘rat–matches’ in which their patrons’ dogs killed the animals by the dozen in special pits built in their cellars. Catchers were paid three pence for each rat caught, and one London landlord purchased 26,000 head a year.

Rat–catching was a risky job, and the principal danger was infection from the bite of a sewer rat. ‘When the bite is a bad one,’ Black told Mayhew, ‘it festers and forms a hard core in the ulcer, which throbs very much indeed. This core is as big as a boiled fish’s eye, and as hard as stone. I generally cuts the bite out clean with a lancet and squeezes…. I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name to you, sir.’

Black’s skills, Mayhew noted, extended far beyond the capture of rats and moles. He also stuffed animals and birds, trained fish, and caught fish (with his bare hands) for fishmongers and aquariums.

James Carr-Boyle, Fifth Earl of Glasgow (1792-1869)

Magnificent, if dangerously eccentric, racehorse owner

Many wealthy aristocrats have been devoted to racing, but few have ever had so little success as the Fifth Earl of Glasgow, whose lifelong love affair with the turf left him with little to show by way of either prize money or prized studs.

Part of the problem was Carr-Boyle’s boneheaded reluctance to give any of his horses names until they had proved themselves by winning races, a habit that naturally caused great confusion in the stables. On the evening before one event, according to anecdote, ‘he was induced to Christen three, and the following were the names under which they ran: "Give-Him-a-Name," "He-Hasn't-Got-a-Name," "He-Isn't-Worth-a-Name."’

The Earl also proved obstinately devoted to several bloodlines ‘of proved uselessness,’ and his notoriously vile temper hindered plans for the long-term development of the few promising animals he did possess. It was not unknown for Carr-Boyle to order that horses that had failed to live up to expectations on the daily gallops be shot on the spot. His record, one despairing trainer noted, was six summary executions in a single morning.

A keen huntsman, the eccentric Earl proved equally dangerous over timber. When unable to flush out any foxes, he was quite likely to arbitrarily designate one of his own huntsmen as the quarry and relentlessly pursue the unfortunate man across the countryside for miles.

William Crockford (1775-1844)

Fishmonger-turned-gambler who beggared half the aristocratic families of England

William Crockford
William Crockford

During the early Victorian period, London was awash with bored young aristocrats who, having little to do during a period of protracted peace, assuaged their tedium by gambling.

By far the most opulent and popular of the various gaming ‘hells’ that opened to cater to these appetites was Crockford’s Club, established just off Pall Mall in 1828 and run by a man whom none of the establishment’s wealthy and well-bred members would normally have dreamt of associating with: William Crockford, a former East End fishmonger whose extraordinary skill at odds-making earned him a fortune said to be well in excess of £50,000.

For all his success, Crockford never outgrew those lowly roots, and was careful never to imply he was in any sense the equal of his members – particularly when they owed him money. Contemporaries reported that he remained ‘wholly without grace or elegance, his manner servile, his gaze shifty and suspicious and his bow clumsy and absurd.’

Crockford’s club, nonetheless, numbered among its members well over a thousand of the richest men in England and offered several different games of chance, notably the popular dice game Hazard. It was the proprietor’s genius to make it socially exclusive – the membership committee was chaired by the Duke of Wellington – and to ensure that the club was a congenial meeting place even for those who disdained gambling. Crockford’s chef, for example, was Eustache Ude, then generally recognised as the finest cook in Europe.

Another reason for Crockford’s uncanny success was his encyclopaedic knowledge of the expectations of the heirs to Britain’s principal aristocratic fortunes. It was widely believed that the former fishmonger knew, to the pound and to the hour, exactly when prospective members would come into their inheritances, and could thus arrange to extend suitably-timed invitations for the newly-monied to visit his luxurious premises.

In the course of 15 years of furious gambling, Crockford won hundreds of thousands of pounds from a generation of hapless young aristocrats – so much that there are eminent families in Britain today whose fortunes have never recovered from their ancestors’ encounters with him. Among those beggared at his hands were Sackville Tufton, the ninth Lord Thanet, who lost £200,000 (about £16 million today), and Lord Sefton, who died having lost a similar amount and leaving a further debt of £40,000 to be settled by his heir.

The servile but surpassingly cunning ‘Crocky’ nonetheless came to a bad end, investing money and all his hopes on a young colt he had entered in the Derby of 1844. This, sadly for him, proved to be the most crooked horse race ever run: one syndicate substituted the favourite for another horse; another doped the second favourite; at least one of the principal jockeys was bribed; and a third well-backed horse was, unbeknownst to the organisers of the race, twice as old and hence twice as strong as the remainder of the field. Crockford’s horse came nowhere, and the old man died, three days later, of a broken heart.

Lottie Dod (1871-1960)

Youngest-ever winner of a Wimbledon singles title

Lottie Dodd
Lottie Dodd

Born into one of the most talented sporting families in England, Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Dod took up tennis at the age of nine and won the women’s singles championship at Wimbledon only six years later, aged a mere 15. She remains the youngest woman ever to win that title.

Playing, as was the custom of the time, in long sleeves, full-length skirts and heavy boots, Dod was one of only six women to enter the Wimbledon tournament of 1887 and defeated the reigning champion, Blanche Bingley, in the final 6-2, 6-0. She maintained an active social life that prevented her from entering the tournament in 1889 and caused her to take an entire year off from tennis a year later, yet won at Wimbledon five times and lost only five matches in her entire career. During this time Dod caused a minor sensation by becoming the first woman to play a major tournament wearing a calf-length skirt, which she adapted from her school uniform. A keen and phenomenally talented sportswoman, Dod also played hockey for Britain, won the women’s national golf championship, and represented her country at archery in the 1908 Olympic Games. During the winter months she tobogganed down the famous Cresta Run and took up mountaineering. Today Dod is widely regarded as one of the two or three most versatile sportswomen of all time. She died, aged 88, listening to a radio commentary from Wimbledon.

Tom Dudley (1853-1900)

Shipwrecked yacht captain tried for eating his cabin boy

Few legal cases of the Victorian era are better remembered than that of Regina v. Dudley & Stephens (1884), which helped to establish the defence of necessity in murder trials.

Tom Dudley, the unlucky main protagonist in the celebrated trial, was born in the Essex village of Tollesbury and went to sea on the death of his mother, aged 9. He eventually gained some renown as a yacht captain and in 1884 was engaged to skipper the Mignonette, a small yacht, out to Australia. Dudley hired a navigator, Edwin Stephens, as his mate, and the crew was completed by an ordinary seaman named Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker, 17, who shipped as cabin boy. The four sailed from England in May.

Less than two months later, the Mignonette foundered in moderate seas off the Cape of Good Hope, forcing the crew to abandon ship in their 13-foot lifeboat. Equipped with only two tins of turnips and no water, they drifted for nearly three weeks - by which time all were starving and tormented by thirst. On the twentieth day Parker, already weak from drinking seawater, was killed by Dudley, who stabbed him in the jugular vein while Stephens held him down. All three surviving members of the crew then drank the boy’s blood and consumed ‘quite half’ of his body, Brooks commenting: ‘We partook of it with quite as much relish as ordinary food.’ Sustained in this way, the three seamen were eventually rescued and returned to England, where – having candidly explained how they survived – captain and mate were both arrested.

The ensuing court case aroused enormous controversy. The trial hinged largely on whether the choice of victim had been made at random; some of Dudley’s accounts argued that all four men had agreed to draw lots in order to select one of their number for death, but the prosecution responded that the lottery, if it had ever taken place, had been rigged, and Parker chosen because eating the ship’s cabin boy was an established ‘custom of the sea.’

Judges who debated the case concluded that acquitting Dudley and Stephens would set a dangerous precedent by making murder legal in certain extreme circumstances. The two sailors were accordingly found guilty and sentenced to death, but both were immediately reprieved by Queen Victoria, and their sentences commuted to a mere six months’ imprisonment – a verdict that did, in effect, establish the defence of necessity, while retaining the prerogative of mercy for the Crown.

Although the convicted sailors enjoyed considerable popular support, they were inevitably objects of curiosity and Dudley prudently emigrated to Australia upon his release, becoming a successful tent-maker. He died in 1900, aged just 46, of bubonic plague contracted from fleas infesting a rat which had crawled up a defective pipe into his water closet.

Amelia Dyer (1845-1896)

Infamous murderess and baby–farmer

Amelia Dyer
Amelia Dyer

The practice of baby–farming was one of the great hidden scandals of the Victorian period. Poor families, burdened by the birth of yet another child they could scarcely afford, would hand the baby over to a ‘farmer’, usually a middle–aged woman, who agreed, in exchange for a substantial one–off fee and suitable clothing, to bring it up as her own.

Successful baby–farmers might take responsibility for half a dozen infants or more, but plainly the costs were considerable and several of the women who practised the art found it more expedient to dispose of their helpless charges and pocket the money. Among their number, the most notorious was certainly Amelia Dyer, ‘the Reading baby–farmer’, convicted of seven murders but almost certainly responsible, during a career extending 15 years, for more.

Dyer appeared in the Berkshire town of Reading in 1895 and placed newspaper advertisements offering to adopt and board young children. In March 1896, a boatman recovered the body of a baby girl, Helena Fry, wrapped in brown paper, from the River Thames, and a subsequent dragging of the river revealed two similarly horrific parcels. A faint address on one of the packages led the police to Dyer, a former member of the Salvation Army who had moved about constantly and frequently changed her name in an attempt to evade pursuit.

Dyer confessed without giving any definite number of her victims, telling police that they would be able to identify her victims because she had killed each baby in an identical manner, strangling them with white tape which she left wrapped tight around the infant’s neck. A large pile of baby clothes and letters from anxious mothers was discovered in her home.

The Reading baby-farmer was tried, found guilty and hanged at Newgate Prison. The scandal surrounding this and similar cases led to a considerable tightening of the legislation relating to the adoption of infants.

Pablo Fanque (1796-1871)

Britain’s first black circus owner, immortalised by John Lennon

Pablo Fanque
Pablo Fanque

Pablo Fanque - born William Darby, in Norwich, in 1796 – was one of the most celebrated and successful British circus proprietors of the Victorian age. The son of a butler who was probably a freed slave, Fanque was orphaned while still a child and was apprenticed to William Batty, the owner of a travelling show. In time the boy picked up numerous acrobatic skills and also trained with the renowned circus owner Andrew Ducrow. By the mid-1830s, he was acknowledged as a first-rate equestrian, acrobat, tightrope walker and trainer of show horses, and billed in the press as ‘the loftiest jumper in England.’

In 1841 Fanque left Batty’s show and opened his own with just two horses. He performed mostly in the north of England and gradually developed a full-fledged circus including clowns and acrobatic acts.

By the late 1840s the Fanque circus was one of the best known in the country, but the proprietor’s private life was tinged with tragedy. His wife, Susannah, died in 1848 as the result of a freak accident at a show; part of the wooden structure of the seating collapsed and she was struck on the head by several heavy planks.

Fanque continued to run his Circus Royal after his wife’s death and eventually included the couple’s children in the circus. He seems to have encountered relatively little racism in the course of his career, the chaplain of the Showman’s Guild remarking: ‘In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line, for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession. The camaraderie of the Ring has but one test, ability.’

Pablo Fanque died in Stockport in 1871. Nearly a century later, John Lennon of the Beatles discovered an old playbill advertising a benefit performance for one of his circus’s stars that had been held in Rotherham in 1843. Lennon adapted the wording on the poster to write the lyrics of “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite”, a song on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album.

The Right Honourable Arthur Kinnaird, 11th Lord Kinnaird (1847-1923)

Aristocratic footballer, five-time FA Cup winner and long-serving President of the Football Association.

Arthur Kinnaird
Arthur Kinnaird

Even today, nearly 130 years after his retirement, no man has ever played on the winning side in more FA Cup finals than Lord Kinnaird, one of the founding fathers of the association game and arguably the leading player in the world during the 1870s. The lavishly red-bearded Scotsman represented Wanderers in the second ever FA Cup final, in 1873, and won three titles with the club before switching his allegiance to Old Etonians. He won the cup with them on two further occasions, standing on his head in front of the pavilion to celebrate his fifth and last winners’ medal in 1882.

Kinnaird’s astonishing versatility puts modern players to shame. In the course of his nine FA Cup finals he played in every position, from forward to goalkeeper, while simultaneously serving as treasurer and later president of the Football Association.

Showered with honours though he was, the great man also picked up at least one unwanted distinction, scoring the first significant own goal in football history while keeping goal for Wanderers against Oxford University in the Cup Final of 1877. Kinnaird comfortably held a long shot from EW Waddington before accidentally stepping back between his own posts while preparing to punt clear. In later years it would often – unfairly – be alleged that, as an influential figure on the FA council, he attempted to suppress this embarrassing incident by having the official record expunged and the goal credited to Waddington instead.

Kinnaird continued to play football into his mid-forties and despite his aristocratic breeding was always respected as a tough opponent. When his anxious wife once confided to a friend that she feared her husband would come home one day with a broken leg, the friend, who knew Kinnaird well, responded: ‘You must not worry, madam. If he does, it will not be his own.’

Lola Montez (1821-1861)

Raven-haired beauty who scandalised polite society with her dancing and became mistress of the King of Bavaria

Lola Montez
Lola Montez

Lola Montez – born Eliza Gilbert in rural Ireland in 1821 – led a life that shocked the world, yet died, apparently repentant, in the bosom of the church.

Gilbert first came to public notice when, aged only 15 and still at school, she allowed herself to be seduced by an Army officer home on leave, to whom she was hastily married by her horrified mother. The girl returned to India with her new husband, but, finding the society appallingly dreary, soon embarked on an affair that led him to sue for divorce.

Back in London and cut off by her husband, Gilbert had little option but to reinvent herself as a ‘Spanish’ exotic dancer named Lola Montez, whose performances disgusted and titillated audiences in equal measure.

Montez’s self–invented speciality was the so–called ‘Spider Dance’, which involved her playing the part of a peasant girl who discovers that a tarantula has crept into her clothing. Lola’s exquisite figure, and the frenzied gyrations involved in locating and removing the creature — which required the dancer to pluck at sundry items of clothing and reveal flashes of leg — proved extraordinarily erotic to a society in which a glimpse of ankle was generally the most a gentleman could generally hope to see, and the dancer’s fame quickly spread throughout the world. Contrary to rumour — the story may even have been encouraged by Lola herself — there is no evidence that she ever performed the Spider Dance without underwear, and by modern standards even her most indecorous performances seem modest.

There is, however, no disputing Montez’s claim to have been one of the leading beauties of the age, and in 1846, while touring Germany, she was asked to pose for a portrait to be hung in the fabled Gallery of Beauties maintained by Ludwig, King of Bavaria. Ludwig promptly fell in love with her and installed her as his mistress, eventually falling so fully for her charms that she became de facto ruler of his kingdom, introducing a large number of mostly liberal reforms. It was by now 1848, a year of revolution in Europe, and Lola’s numerous enemies took advantage of the tense political climate to hound her from Bavaria. She returned to the stage, hiring a troupe of dancers and touring with them extensively throughout the world. She created a sensation in California at the time of the Gold Rush, and spent nearly four years in Australia, where she burnished her already considerable fame by taking a horse-whip to the editor of a newspaper that had dared to criticise her act.

In her late thirties, Montez returned to the United States, where, as her beauty faded, she turned to religion. She died, still a month shy of her fortieth birthday, in New York, of pneumonia.

Tom Sayers (1826-1865)

Bare knuckle prize-fighter who fought for the first international boxing championship

Tom Sayers
Tom Sayers

They called him ‘The Little Wonder’, and it was a title that he certainly earned. Tom Sayers, who stood only 5 feet 8 inches and weighed under 11 stone, was perhaps the last great bare knuckle boxing champion of England, holding the title from 1858 to 1860 and battling the American champion, John C. Heenan, for the championship of the world, the first time such an honour had been formally contested.

Born in Brighton, Sayers left school at 13, still illiterate, and became an apprentice bricklayer. He spent most of his 11-year career fighting men considerably bigger than himself, yet lost only one bout. Bricklaying built up his fists and The Little Wonder was renowned for his exceptionally sharp knuckles, a major advantage in the days before gloves became compulsory. Sayers’s first victory, on a muddy Wandsworth Common, was over an Irish navvy who stood 6’3”. The Little Wonder, fighting in bare feet, stayed with his opponent for two hours and 20 minutes until the mud clinging to the latter’s boots at last began to slow him down. He later defeated William Perry, ‘The Tipton Slasher’, to win the English heavyweight championship. Sayers’s match with Heenan, lasting well over two hours, was ruled a draw, though the American was left in a critical condition and spent two days recovering in a darkened room. Sayers’s backers then persuaded him to retire.

The champion’s private life was unhappy; his wife was unfaithful to him, bearing at least four children by a lover, and Sayers drank heavily to drown his sorrows after his retirement, ending his life a virtual alcoholic. Aristocratic patrons raised £3,000 for the champion and he lived on that small fortune until his death, from tuberculosis, at the age of only 39.