Category Archives: Nineteenth Century British History

‘The Character of Credit’ by Margot C. Finn


The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture 1740-1914 2003 364 p

I noticed a few weeks back as part of the discussion about childcare funding that the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has suggested that instead of big business being asked to pay a 1.5% levy, workers could be offered a HECS-style loan for childcare.  Not only do we put ourselves into HECS debt for the training to get a job, it seems, but we wade even further into ‘HECS-style’ debt for childcare to ensure that we can keep working to pay off that original HECS debt.   In a home-owner society like middle-Australia, it’s almost taken for granted that there will be a mortgage, but it’s becoming the new normal for rising generations to have an extra debt as well- that little ol’ HECS debt, bubbling away in the background.

I realized after reading Margot Finn’s book The Character of Credit, however, that the universality of indebtedness might not be a recent thing. Instead, as she demonstrates so ably,  debt was interwoven into the networks and relationships in British society from top to bottom.  They weren’t borrowing from banks: they were borrowing from each other, and the relationship was personal. In deciding if someone’s personal worth,  you’d check out his or her clothes, marital relations, spending patterns and perceived social status- and the people who were lending to you would be doing the same thing.

The book has three parts.  In the first, Finn begins by examining the treatment of debt in the 19th century novel and as you might imagine, Dickens and Trollope get a good airing, but many others as well- in fact, once you’re alert to it, you see these relationships of debt and obligation everywhere.  She explores a wide array of exchange activities: instrumental gift giving, customary retail sociability (where people of means would intentionally only pay their accounts once a year, often impoverishing the humble shoptrader in the process),  reliance on unwritten debt agreements and  purchasing by people (i.e. women) who did not have legal agency. She then moves onto autobiographical accounts and diaries, which largely support the view put forward by the novelists that the webs of overlapping indebtedness ran right throughout society from top to bottom.

In Part Two, she turns to institutional and governmental records to examine the changing history of imprisonment for debt.   Indebtedness was seen as misfortune, not a moral failing, and the debtors’ prison was not so much a punishment as a place of asylum for the debtor from the duress being placed on him by his creditors.  Many of the people there were of relatively high status: it wasn’t worth pursuing a debtor who had nothing.  Just as Dickens showed us with the Marshalsea in Little Dorritt, there was a flow of people and goods in and out of the prison which was, indeed, a sanctuary.  The prisoners there literally ran the prison, taking responsibility for conditions and behaviours- and get this! they even levied fines on people who left the toilet seat up in the water closet!!!

In Part Three she traces the change in attitude in the 1840s as debt came to be seen as fraud, not misfortune, and the implications for punishment.  The summary small-claims courts were established to support this changed conception, and were marked out from the other courts in that married women were allowed to appear and give evidence.  In this chapter she draws on legal cases and records from tradesmen’s protection associations.

The book covers 1740-1914, and so much of the material in this last chapter took me beyond my own period of interest (i.e. up to 1845). It was this ‘modern’ view of debt from 1842 onwards that my own judge, Judge Willis, was wanting to adopt, and it very much fitted in with his campaign of ‘sifting to the bottom’ of financial impropriety.  I’d read in several places where he expressed a wish for the English system, and now I understand why.

There’s a very detailed, informed and nuanced review of the book here which takes some issue with the arguments raised.  I lack the knowledge to give anything other than an impressionistic review. I admire the way that this beautifully written book combines a close reading of the novels she has chosen in the first section, with a confident use of legal documentation in the second and third sections.  There would be few writers, I suspect, who could combine the literary and the legal so well.

Ben Wilson ‘The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain 1789-1837’


2007, 389 p & notes

One of the basic questions in writing history is how to define the period under examination.  Sometimes historians use seminal events- particularly military ones- as markers.  Others use famous people: “the age of Beethoven” or “Austen’s world”.  Centuries can be used as markers, stretched out to form “the long 18th century” or “the long 19th century”. A recent approach, reflecting no doubt the effect of sociology on history, has been to look at generations.

My own research takes an individual life as its starting point: that of John Walpole Willis, born in 1793.  I’ve been interested in some time in the mental furniture with which his mind would have been stocked, having grown to adulthood in pre-Victorian times, yet living most of his professional life under Victoria’s reign.  As a judge, his pronouncements from the bench seem steeped in Victorian rectitude, but he was himself born in Georgian times.  Using the British royal family as periodization (Georgian, Victorian) is convenient, but it doesn’t explain how any qualitative change from one era to another occurred. How did the rambunctious disorder and ribaldry of Georgian times turn into the moralistic earnestness of Victorian times? How did this affect the way that people thought? Continue reading

‘A Swindler’s Progress’ by Kirsten McKenzie


2009, 303 p. & notes

A couple of weeks ago I thought that I had finished the best book that I would be reading during 2013.  I was premature in my declaration.  This is the best book that I have read this year, and in this case, I have no qualms at all about the  behaviour of its author as a professional historian.  Kirsten McKenzie’s earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is one of the books that has shaped my approach to my own research.  Her portrayal of colonial life in the early nineteenth century as a criss-crossing of networks and connections between different colonies across the globe rings true for ‘my’ judge and the other officials that he encountered during his career, as a quick glance through the Australian Dictionary of Biography will attest.  She writes clearly, with humour, and interweaves human stories into a robust and insightful theoretical framework.  She’s the sort of historian I wish I could be.

In fact, as she explains in the epilogue,  it was her concern as a professional historian with the accuracy of her footnotes just as Scandal in the Colonies was about to roll off the press that brought her to writing this book.  As part of the History Wars of the Howard era, Keith Windschuttle challenged the historiography of aboriginal/settler conflict, largely on the basis of the accuracy of footnotes.  Like many historians, I should imagine, McKenzie became increasingly “twitchy” (as she puts it) over her own footnotes, and so, suffering “footnote paranoia”,  she returned to the story with which she opened Scandal in the Colonies and found it even more fascinating than when she encountered it the first time.  It was the case of  the putative Viscount Lascelles – in reality, the implausibly but actually named John Dow- a convict who served out his time in Van Diemen’s land after being transported for swindling using yet another false identity. On the expiry of his sentence, he traversed the NSW interior, claiming that he had been commissioned by the Secretary of State to inquire into the proper treatment of assigned convicts.  He claimed that he was the eldest son of the second Earl of Harewood- a claim haughtily denied by the Earl back in England whose eldest son, in fact had been disinherited after making a series of disastrous liaisons. As part of his ruse as Commissioner of Inquiry, ‘Viscount Lascelles’/John Dow eloped with a young woman and ended up in the Sydney Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her from her parents who had reclaimed her, only to see her married some time later to the nephew of the future Chief Justice Dowling who heard the case. He was subsequently returned to the Supreme Court after his deception was discovered- where, yes! he encountered ‘my’ Judge Willis!  In Scandal in the Colonies, the anecdote takes less than two pages. In A Swindler’s Progress it effortlessly fills 300 pages.

The distance and dislocation of the colonies gave scope to false identities and reinventions.  There are many famous ones both in literature and in real life: Robyn Annear’s book The Man Who Lost Himself about the Tichborne Claimant springs to mind. But this book is much more than the story of an antipodean imposter. McKenzie shuttles between the real Earl of Harewood and his son, bringing in parliamentary politics in 1807, West Indian plantation ownership, elopements and disinheritances, and the imposter son Viscount Lascelles and his deceptions in England, Scotland and New South Wales.  The real skill of her book is integrating the two stories, on opposite sides of the globe to explore the way in which the British world was convulsed in this period by debates about identity, wealth, demeanour and masculinity.  Note that it is “the British world”- an arena which interweaves both metropole and peripheries as a conceptual transnational whole:

As I began my hunt for Dow and the Lascelles, scholars of empire were calling for histories that recognised that developments in British and colonial societies were part and parcel of the same process.  The problem was: how to write it? How could this miracle of synthesis be achieved in anything like a readable manner?  How could you show it was happening? And how could you show what it was like to be caught up in these interconnected events?  Here I had the story of two men: of one who had come to vanish, and another who had stolen that identity to pursue his own ends.  But their fates were part of far bigger events. (Epilogue, p. 296)

Her earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is a tapestry of such stories, woven between Sydney and Cape Town between 1820 and 1850.  It has many theoretical insights that make you stop, reread, and realize that things are falling into place.  In this second book, she makes this theory come alive as she meanders along a story that crosses years and oceans, looping back on itself, with deceptions and evasions and disappointments and anxieties in multiple settings.  It is not necessarily a straightforward chronology, first in one country, then the other, although the structure of the book does support this rather simplistic approach.  The book is far more discursive than this, stopping to explore phenomena and events only tangentially connected with the main narrative thread. It is far more a ‘life and times’ of a phenomena than a biography of Lascelles in both his authentic and false identities.

Her epilogue betrays a slight defensiveness about her use of narrative to explore these all-too-human responses in the face of sweeping social change:

Is narrative simply a way for historians to smooth over the mess that is the past; to re-arrange it into comfortingly familiar patterns that have beginnings, middles and ends?  and yet, for all our scholarly suspicion of the neatening effects of stories, they still possess a powerful explanatory energy.  What was it like to be buffeted by those forces that were transforming so profoundly the British imperial world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Those caught up in them would not live their lives according to the synthesising arguments of scholars.  Rather, they would act according to the dictates of narrative and plot: finding opportunities, being thwarted, experiencing greed, hope despair.  To follow these twists and turns is to highlight the way their world was changing.  It is luck and chance and swindles and lies and unexpected opportunities that direct lives and fates. (p.298)

She need not be defensive.  She is a master storyteller who uses the human to enliven the theoretical, and the insights of the scholarly enrich her narrative of lives lived with contingency, imperfection and incomplete endings.  This is the best book I’ve read all year.

My rating: A big fat, unequivocal 10

Read because: I enjoyed Scandal in the Colonies so much and I can reassure myself that at least I’m reading about the 19th century British empire this time

Sourced from: my shelves- a Christmas present from my husband in 2009.  Hmmm…… it took me a little while to get round to reading it.

awwbadge_2013This will be, I think, one of my last postings to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

‘Perilous Question’ by Antonia Fraser


Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832,

2013, 278 p.

By coincidence, I have been reading this book during the week that the world was watching with bemused concern as the American economy seemed as if it were going to jump off a cliff through the single-minded intransigence of the Tea Party wing of the Republican party.  Will they/won’t they? What if..? Surely not?  It strikes me that much the same questions could have been framed by the political commentators after the 1830 election. For as Antonia Fraser reminds us, just as the financial world hasn’t known quite how the brinksmanship in Congress was going to work out, so too those watching the negotiations and brinkmanship over the 1832 Reform Bill didn’t know how it was going to work out either.

I have borne in mind the words of F. W. Maitland, which are at the heart of writing history: ‘We should always be aware that what now lies in the past, once lay in the future’: that is to say, we know the Reform Bill will pass, but the people who fought for it did not (p. xiii)

It was customary that an election be held after a monarch died. In the election held after William IV came to the throne, the Tories, who had been in power for nearly 60 years scraped in with a bare majority.  In a country already heaving with unrest with the Captain Swing riots in the wake of rapid industrialization,  Prime Minister Wellington declared in the House of Lords his trenchant opposition to any reform of the outdated voting arrangements for Parliament.  As a man whose political career  was founded on his military success after the French Revolution, he only had to look across the Channel to France where in the wake of the 1830 Revolution King Louis-Phillipe had abolished the hereditary upper house in 1831.  And so the stage was set:  the House of Lords bitterly resisted any reform that would challenge the personal control of parliamentary seats, but in the House of Commons, amongst the Whigs in both houses, and in the streets and fields outside, the momentum was on for reform.

It took two years, a fall of government, another election, and the threat of the King creating additional peers before  the Reform Bill was finally and grudgingly passed by  the House of Lords.  What followed was a decade of political swings and roundabouts, with governments changing, falling, and resurrecting in rapid succession.  From a colonial Australian perspective, you can see it in the succession of Secretaries of State for the Colonies who came and went in the 1830s and 1840s so often that Governors must have hesitated over addressing their despatches lest the recipient be ousted by the time it was received.

This book marks somewhat of a departure for Antonia Fraser, who is probably more famous for her books on individual French and English royals- Marie Antoinette, Henry’s wives, Mary Queen of Scots etc. (although she has also written on Cromwell, women in 17century England and the Gunpowder Plot). It’s the first of her books to be set in the 19th century as distinct from the 17th, but like all of her other books she looks at individuals within wider political movements.  This book centres on the action in and around Parliament in the two years that it took the Reform Bill to finally pass, and ‘the people’ (a much less threatening description than ‘the mob’) are a shadowy presence outside Parliament.  It’s a book about Lords a-plenty, both Whig and Tory, supported by Thomas Attwood, the middle-class banker from Birmingham who agitated the middling classes, and the so-called ‘Radical Tailor’ Francis Place who kept ‘the people’ as a restless weapon at the ready.

It’s always confusing reading British Parliamentary History because although the titles remain constant, the men who bear them change as fathers die and sons shuffle up the chain of titles to take their place.  So I was startled to read that Earl Grey was an old man when he stood up in Parliament in 1830 to push for Reform- and yet he was Secretary of State in the 1840s- how could this be? – until I remembered that there was a 2nd and a 3rd Earl Grey, and that Howick and 3rd Earl Grey were the same man. I must admit that I hadn’t realized that the House of Commons was such a holding-pen for sons waiting to succeed their fathers in the House of Lords, and that socially, the two houses were so intertwined. There’s many familiar names- Brougham, Lord Althorp (3rd Earl Spencer and Princess Diana’s forebear), Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Durham (of Canadian history fame), Queen Adelaide (the capital city of South Australia, the wine) and even court reporter Charles Dickens.  Fraser does well to give this huge cast of characters clear identities and a visual image, and if you do forget who’s who, the index is very helpful.

Because the interest of this book is based so much on the debates and tensions in Parliament, it’s a book dominated by politics and individuals.  In this way, it’s quite similar to the journalism that has surrounded the machinations in Congress over the passing of the debt ceiling in the last week.   It’s a book for political junkies of the 19th century, but it has lessons for us today as well. For those of us who want quick fixes through Parliament, it’s a sobering lesson.  When those who hold power are being asked to vote against their own interests (think the Abolition of Slavery, the Reform Bill, putting a price on carbon), things take time.   Change is often incremental, as well.  After all the debating, the pressure, the muffled threats of popular dissent, the Reform Bill of 1832 made only relatively small changes. The number of electors increased from 478,000 to 813,000 out of population of 24 million.  It took two further Reform Bills, then the final acknowledgment of female suffrage after WWI, before universal voting rights were achieved.

The subtitle of the book is “The Drama of the Great Reform Bill”.   For those of us who like reading about politics, it is drama indeed.

‘Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria’ Yvonne M. Ward


2013,  173 p.

We’re told that it’s all about controlling the narrative.  Politicians all do it, it seems; and we risk losing control of our narrative by putting too much of our lives onto the internet, we’re told.  All this might seem far removed from good old Queen Victoria, but on reading Unsuitable for Publication, I’ve realized that it isn’t.  Then and now, it’s all about image creation and the interplay between the image we think we have constructed and the image that others might massage or manipulate from our words.

Queen Victoria was a huge correspondent.  She wrote 122 volumes of her diaries over her long life and she maintained a large correspondence with her family  members so widely dispersed amongst the royal families of Europe, as well as a vast network of communication amongst politicians, and other notables. It has been estimated that she wrote an average of 2500 words each day of her adult life, and perhaps sixty million words in the course of her reign (p.9).  What to do with all this writing?  Her daughter Princess Beatrice thought that she knew.  Queen Victoria had appointed her as her literary executor, and after her mother’s death and over 30 years she copied the entries of the 122 diary volumes into 111 thick exercise-books, altering and censoring anything liable to ‘affect any of the family painfully’, then burnt the originals.  Interestingly, Victoria herself had published extracts from her own journals while she was on the throne, so she wasn’t beyond a bit of image-creation herself. Continue reading

Weeping Judges

My research interest is Mr Justice Willis and it is almost a reflex action now whenever I encounter a book about 19th century justice to flip to the index to see if ‘my’ judge gets a mention.  Again and again my heart has leaped at seeing   “Willes, J.” only to look more closely and see that it is Willes (with an ‘e’) instead of Willis (with an ‘i’).  The two judges were roughly contemporaneous and I wouldn’t be the first person to have confused them .   Of course, I’m fairly wedded to the human story in my own Judge Willis, but Judges Willes (with an ‘e’) has a damned good story as well.  Perhaps I should write it when I’ve finished with my man? (Only joking- mostly).

When reading 19th century press reports of trials, there are stock phrases that are used in describing the demeanour of the judges.  In the court reports, judges might be “twitchy”, they “stifle a groan”, they are “grave” and- rather strangely to our way of thinking today- are sometimes “overcome by weeping”.    Thomas Dixon from the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions has written an excellent article titled ‘The Tears of Mr Justice Willes’ in the Journal of Victorian Culture  2012, Vol 17 No. 1 p.1-23.  It is available on open access here.

James Shaw Willes was born in 1814 and died in 1872. He was born in Cork and was educated at Trinity College Dublin but was called to the English Bar and commenced practice on the Home Circuit.  At the age of forty one (which is young) he was knighted and appointed a puisne judge of the Common Pleas and he presided over a number of sensational and widely reported cases.  Most particularly he presided over the 1865 trial of Constance Kent for the murder of her young half-brother at Road Hill House Wiltshire, a case which was so ably explored in Kate Summerscale’s recent book The Suspicions of Mr Witcher (which I reviewed here). In this case, along with others he heard, Justice Willes was overcome by emotion, breaking down in tears.  According to press reports, in passing sentence on young Constance, Justice Willes ‘bent forward and wept for some few seconds’ and  ‘the learned Judge here again wept, and the solemn words of his sentence were almost inaudible’.  Dixon’s article gives several other examples of Justice Willes’ displays of emotion, before moving to talk about the meaning of tears across history and particularly in the 19th century.

I have come across several mentions of Justice Willes- in fact, ‘my’ Judge Willis cited him in a court case once.  Indeed, he was highly acclaimed for his judicial knowledge at the time and after, although apparently he had his detractors among some of the other judges (as did ‘my’ Judge Willis who in fact seemed to take pride in his unpopularity with his fellow judges).   Justice Willes seems to have been a deeply intelligent, cultured, literate man.  It would appear that his personal life was rather unhappy, and there are suggestions that he married only to avoid a breach of promise action.  He sat at the highest levels of the judicial establishment in England at the time, and was a member of the Privy Council.   He committed suicide in 1872.  Explanations for his suicide have included his over-sensitive and melancholic  nature, ‘repressed gout’,  the burden on his health of heavy court sittings, and the prospect of potential political scandal.  In his article Dixon looks at the diagnosis of ‘repressed gout’- a malady much in fashion at the time- and its relationship with the emotions.

Thomas Dixon has a 3-part posting on the History of Emotions blog.  It’s a good read, interspersed with video clips and comments on a BBC program (to which Dixon contributed) called  Ian Hislop’s History of the Stiff Upper Lip, which screened in England in November 2012.  I wonder if we’ll see it here in Australia, or whether it will be scooped up under the highly unpleasant Foxtel deal.

I’m fascinated by this whole area of history.  I can see a whole other area to explore in relation to ‘my’ Judge opening up in front of me!

‘Redcoat’ by Richard Holmes


422 p. & notes, 2001

I spent all of Anzac Day and most of the following day reading about soldiers.  Not Australian ones, but British ones.  I was originally spurred to read this book by a question in my mind about the wives of officers in the British Army, but I then realized that British regiments have been just off-stage in the three British colonies that I’ve been studying (Upper Canada, British Guiana, New South Wales).  In fact, they’ve been ON the stage all along but I just haven’t been looking there.

Richard Holmes is one of my favourite biographers- as you can tell here and here. This book, however,  is written by the OTHER Richard Holmes- the military history one (who died in 2011) .  But his opening page certainly started well, and could well have been written by ‘my’ other literary-biography Richard Holmes:

He has not shaved this morning.  And from the look of things he shaved neither yesterday nor the day before.  Ginger stubble sprouts from a sun-tanned face, with red-rimed blue eyes and a mouth whose teeth stand anyhow, like a line of newly raised militia…. His name is Ezekial Hobden, Hobden to officers, NCOs and most private soldiers but Zeke to a favoured few….(p. 3)

Military history is most definitely not my favourite genre.  I dislike the deference, the lionizing of ‘great’ men,  the pernickity attention to details about battles and uniforms and regiments,  and the “well done those men!” tone of it all.  But as Holmes says in his preface

This is not a book about great, or even non-so-great generals, though both feature in it from time to time.  And it is not about battles either, even if we are rarely very far away from them.  Instead, its concern is for the  raw material of generalship and the pawns of battle, the regimental officers and soldiers, (and their wives, sweethearts and followers of a less defined and sometimes rather temporary status) that served in the British army in a century when it painted the world red. p. Xv.

Holmes makes no secret of his admiration for the British Army- he even declares his love (and he uses that word) for  “its sheer, dogged, awkward, bloody-minded endurance.”  The army he describes in this book existed with relatively little change between 1760 and the eve of World War I.  It had two functions: the continental one, with an emphasis on formalism in drill and dress and the scientific aspects of warcraft, and a colonial function where practicality outranked precedent, and dress and discipline were looser.  It is this colonial British Army that I have been encountering in my studies without quite acknowledging it.  Holmes examines both threads of the British Army, both at home and in deployments in the American War of Independence, the Peninsular campaign, in India and particularly the Indian Mutiny and finally in the Crimea.

His emphasis is on the experience of the officers and soldiers of the British Army, rather than the battles as such.  He speaks of recruiting,  food, clothing, camaraderie, punishment, equipment, wounds and drunkenness.  It is a particularly human account, with only one section on weaponry and its use in battle that had me squirming a bit and wondering why I was reading it.  He relies heavily on memoirs from soldiers of all ranks and campaigns, and there’s humour in there, alongside the waste, the waste, the waste.  We meet several of his soldiers again and again in different chapters- perhaps he could have had an appendix at the end to remind his readers of who they were when you met them again. But perhaps they’re better left as living, talking men in their memoirs, rather than a cut-and-dried obituary.  In fact, he says something like this in his closing pages:

There are moments when a memorial has come as an unexpected shock, for the man it commemorates has featured prominently in the memoirs that have formed so much a part of my working life for the past two years and, ridiculously, I know, it is hard to think of him as being dead. (p. 420)

This is a strangely emotional book for a military history with  humour and love written into it.  I enjoyed it a great deal.