I was just reading a book on Victorian sensational journalism (Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead by Thomas Boyle, if you’re interested). Basically, it’s a book analysing the way shocking events were reported in 19th century newspapers, and seeing if we can work anything out about the Victorian mindset from these reports.
Well, the Victorian mindset, as I believe I have mentioned before in these pages, was definitely not as straight-laced as you might think. It was a golden age of pious hypocrisy. Whether the straight-lacedness arose to hide the tawdriness of the minds beneath or the tawdriness arose in response to the straight-lacedness is not entirely clear to me.
Whichever it is, it’s clear that the Victorians loved a bit of sex-and-violence as much as anyone else. I do wonder if the reason Jack the Ripper is by far the best known serial killer in British history was because of the press coverage as much as the murders themselves. And as for their real attitude to sex, I think my favourite indicator is Henry Spencer Ashbee’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum and Catena Librorum Tadendorum, two comprehensive list of pornographic novels available in 1877 and 1885 respectively. In the latter of these, he noted,
Better were it that such literature did not exist. I consider it pernicious and hurtful to the immature, but at the same time I hold that, in certain circumstances, its study is necessary, if not beneficial.
So there. It’s for emergency use only. I shall elaborate no further.
Anyway, this book largely confirms that. One story in particular rather leapt out as being worthy of further examination, a tale from the wilds of Croydon. Somewhat frustratingly, Mr Boyle doesn’t always give the sources of the extracts in the book – this, he says, is due to receiving the stories in the form of several volumes of clippings.
Anyway, this story took place in August 1857. This was the year when the Matrimonial Causes Act came into being. This Act, put simply, made getting a divorce easier by running it through the courts rather than Parliament. The Act was a long way from perfect. Significantly, it was very biased in favour of men. Men only needed to prove that their wives had committed adultery. Women, however, needed to prove that hubby was also guilty of cruelty, desertion, bigamy or incest.
Tales concerning divorce (or Criminal Conversation, to use the euphemism of the day) became the in thing with the papers, as they provided plenty of juicy gossip while also allowing the Moral Guardians of the Nation to shake their heads and tut. The Merry Tale from Croydon, as this story was headed, is a perfect example.
The participants were a Mr Lyle, Mrs Lyle and Mr Lyle’s business partner, Mr Herbert. It seems that Mr Herbert had been lodging with the Lyles, and Mr Lyle became suspicious. Now, these days you’d probably hire a private detective, but Mr Lyle decided instead to hire an unemployed cabinet-maker named Mr Taylor to spy on them.
Lyle and Taylor hired a room in the next house which, luckily, was right next to Mrs Lyle’s bedroom. Taylor’s original plan was to bore a spyhole, which proved ineffective. And so Taylor used his ingenuity to come up with an entirely new device. The judge would later refer to this as a “crimconometer” The device was a kind of scale attached to Mrs Lyle’s bed which could tell by weight whether one person or two were in there. Perhaps slightly letting his imagination run away with him, Taylor also included settings for three or four people.
And so it was that one night, Taylor was keeping watch (and drinking gin) when the levers on the crimconometer fell, showing two people in the bed. Daringly, Taylor climbed out of the window, across the roof and in through the window next door, catching Mrs Lyle and Mr Herbert in flagrante delicto.
In the face of such evidence, the judge had little choice but to find in Mr Lyle’s favour. It was just a shame that more-or-less everyone, including the jury, the judge and the reporter, seemed to find the whole story hilarious. In the light of the sheer bat’s-arseness of the business, the judge decided to award Mr Lyle one farthing in damages. That is, for those of you unfamiliar with pre-decimalisation currency, a quarter of a penny and, as the judge was keen to emphasise, “the lowest coin of the realm.”
Like many judges, our man was something of a cynic, and inclined to the popular view that many of the divorce cases brought were more about receiving damages than righting wrongs. Mr Lyle was unfortunate enough to be made an example of.
Still, if they’d thought a bit more about it, maybe they could have made a bit of money off the crimconometer. Think of the amount they could make off celebrities alone!