Strange Vic­to­ri­ana

Tales of the Cu­ri­ous, the Weird and the Un­canny from Our Vic­to­rian An­ces­tors

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Books - SD Tucker

Jan Bon­de­son

Am­ber­ley Pub­lish­ing 2016

Hb, 352pp, il­lus, refs, ind, £20, ISBN: 9781445658858

When The Il­lus­trated Po­lice News (IPN) first ap­peared in 1864 as a weekly chron­i­cle of crime, ghosts and the good old-fash­ioned blood-and-gore which the public wanted, the self-ap­pointed Lord Levesons of the day were united in their con­dem­na­tion of what was dubbed ‘The Worst News­pa­per in Eng­land’. In­deed, the IPN was li­belled in some quar­ters as be­ing a kind of cheap ‘Mur­derer’s Hand­book’, with evil-do­ers hav­ing only to pay their penny to gain a copy of a handy ‘How-To’ guide for chop­ping a child’s head off, stab­bing an old lady or slic­ing up the near­est pros­ti­tute. Ac­cord­ing to one 1881 as­sess­ment, the IPN’s many de­tailed (non­pho­to­graphic) il­lus­tra­tions “min­is­ter to the mor­bid crav­ings of the un­e­d­u­cated for the hor­ri­ble and the re­pul­sive, and its ad­ver­tise­ments [of­ten of a du­bi­ous sex­ual na­ture] call for the in­ter­ven­tion of the po­lice.” If so, then I must share such “mor­bid crav­ings” my­self, be­cause I found this col­lec­tion of sto­ries from the IPN, com­piled and re­told by Jan Bon­de­son, to be highly en­ter­tain­ing. Within, you will find all man­ner of Vic­to­rian tabloid freaks and odd­i­ties, from dog­faced men to con­joined twins, to some of the fat­test Scots­men on record. An al­leged ‘hu­man mon­key’ (re: small hairy for­eigner) vies for space with baby-eat­ing pigs and the French midget who was al­legedly de­voured by per­form­ing cats, all ac­com­pa­nied by images whose vi­o­lence may once have seemed shock­ing but which now of­ten comes across as be­ing sim­ply comic. Maybe I’m just sick, but I thought the re­pro­duced 1889 de­pic­tion of an ele­phant be­ing run over by a train, or the 1880 draw­ing of a mon­key smash­ing rats’ skulls in with a ham­mer, were highly amus­ing. The only good word any­one had to say about such pic­tures at the time, how­ever, came from the re­ported-upon murderers them­selves, sev­eral of whom wrote in to the ed­i­tor, com­pli­ment­ing him upon the ac­cu­racy with which his artists had cap­tured the like­nesses of them­selves slay­ing their vic­tims!

In his ac­counts of the IPN’s sto­ries, Bon­de­son draws out the sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences be­tween the pa­per and the tabloids of to­day. As be­fits the age of Dick­ens, Bon­de­son finds that the Vic­to­rian rag had a well-mined seam of soppy sen­ti­men­tal­ism about it, de­pict­ing murderers’ poor old moth­ers weep­ing be­fore their way­ward sons went to the gal­lows, whereas the Suns and Mails of to­day are more likely to of­fer brac­ingly harsh com­men­taries of the ‘hang the bas­tard!’ type – in an era when, iron­i­cally, such an op­tion is no longer avail­able. Some once com­mon story-types have now largely dis­ap­peared from the pages of our press, mean­while, such as the for­mer abun­dance of Spring-heeled Jacks who used to dress up in white sheets and Scooby Doo-style cos­tumes to frighten late-night trav­ellers along lonely coun­try lanes. Per­haps the mod­ern-day equiv­a­lents are the fools who dress up as Killer Clowns for sim­i­lar kicks. Bon­de­son ac­tu­ally un­earths an 1875 in­stance of a clown-im­per­son­ator ac­ci­den­tally star­tling his wife to the point that “her life was de­spaired of” – the first in a long line of phony Pen­ny­wises? There are also some sto­ries which re­sem­ble the Vic­to­rian equiv­a­lent of ‘fake news’, given that they ap­par­ently didn’t ac­tu­ally oc­cur; did a lonely old ec­cen­tric re­ally be­lieve that her en­tire fam­ily had been rein­car­nated in cat-form, for in­stance, or the sin­is­ter Dr Beau­re­gard re­ally freeze cholera bacilli then serve them up to din­ner-guests as iced-treats in a se­ries of bizarre ex­per­i­ments? (If some of these sto­ries sound fa­mil­iar, by the way, it is be­cause around half the book con­sists of pieces which have ap­peared in these pages over the past five or so years in the re­cently con­cluded ‘Strange and Sen­sa­tional Sto­ries from the

Il­lus­trated Po­lice News’ col­umn – although that also means around half haven’t, so will be new to FT read­ers).

As time went on, changes in own­er­ship and fash­ion made the IPN seem a shadow of its for­mer self. Grad­u­ally, more and more sport­ing news made its way into the once-mighty or­gan’s pages, lead­ing to its re­nam­ing in 1938 as The Sport­ing Record. In mod­i­fied

form, as The Grey­hound and Sport­ing Record, the pub­li­ca­tion limped on un­til as late as 1980, hav­ing, as Bon­de­son ex­plains, “de­gen­er­ated into a worth­less news­pa­per for point­less old men hang­ing around in book­mak­ers’ shops.” A sad fate in­deed for a one-time best­seller. As this book ad­mirably shows, the IPN in no way de­served its un­wanted rep­u­ta­tion as ‘The Worst News­pa­per in Eng­land’, due to the sim­ple fact that its con­tents (or those con­tents re­pro­duced within, in any case) were of­ten highly read­able; as is Bon­de­son’s book.

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