Introducing ‘Radical Victorians’

Ever heard of Florence Nightingale or Charles Darwin? Of course you have, or you would not have started reading this, but my book is not about them, or many other famous radical thinkers. Many succeeded in convincing people in their lifetime. This book will introduce you to people who were equally as radical but were less successful in their own lifetime, and only became important post mortem.

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Our first chapter is a case in point- the subject is Britain’s most famous vegetarian Anna Kingsford. Her life was varied and interesting, and her refusal to conform went much further than not eating meat. She was a founder of British theosophy, an anti-vaxxer and a believer in equal marriage. Readers of this chapter might understand way vegetarianism retains its slightly unorthodox tint in the present century.

Chapter two features another campaign against cruelty, in the form of the most famous Anglo-Irish campaigner against vivisection Frances Power Cobbe. She was a socially well placed journalist (and a member of Conservative Party) who used gruesome words and pictures to condemn animal cruelty. She was also a campaigner for woman’s rights in the area of domestic violence, property rights and the vote and openly lived in a same-sex relationship for much of her life.

Our next woman was definitely a radical, despite being the wife of an Irish Presbyterian minister who would have been very angry indeed with the ideas of Kingsford or Cobb. This is Ann Jane Carlile, who fought against the demon drink in Britain and Ireland. She fought against the hugely powerful drinks industry, tried to empower working class woman by removing the debilitating effect of alcohol from their lives and diets. Even if she does not sound like you kind of person, if you read the chapter you may at least come to admire her.

Florence Cook

Temperance was radical in itself because it gave a voice to women. Spiritualism was the same, and our Victorian radical in this area is Florence Cook. It does not matter is she was a fraud, and her radicalism was unconnected with the truth of her beliefs. Spiritualism was a radical movement; it defied traditional religion and was organised largely by women. Florence’s story shows a woman who was well aware what she could achieve with the tool of spiritualism.

Talking about the dead (rather than merely talking to them) we come to our first double chapter on Sir Henry Thompson and Isabelle Holmes.  Henry Thompson was about as ‘establishment’ as you could be, and somebody like that was needed to achieve what he did; he brought cremation to Britain. He did not make it popular; by 1902, there had only ever been 4,409 cremations, 2,653 of which had taken place in one crematorium in Woking. Cremation represented barely 5% of interments even as late as the 1930s in the UK. Cremation only overtook traditional burial in 1967. Isabelle Holmes is by far the most obscure of our Radical Victorians; she campaigned for new open spaces for the poor of London, and was one of the first to point out that the dead were hogging all the available land. She supported cremation, and went on to have a career in local government, which although unremarkable in our time, was a trailblazing effort for the middle class females of the time. This was the part of the book I liked writing the most; I had brought her back from total obscurity!

Our next double chapter is on woman’s legal rights, including the right to vote; the twentieth century suffragette movement has deep roots in Victorian times. The chapter features a Pankhurst- Richard Pankhurst , and Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy. Richard has been overshadowed by his wife and daughters, probably rightly, but he was as committed as they were, if not so well organised. Wolstenholme-Elmy was a feminist campaigner who has been saved from obscurity by a successful campaign to erect a statue in Congleton, where she lived in sin with her partner Ben Elmy until her woman’s rights ‘friends’ pressurized the pair into marriage.

Birth control is the subject of the next double chapter, containing a name you might know and a name you probably do not; Annie Besant and George Drysdale.  Drysdale’s views on sex, sexuality and birth control where utterly shocking in mid-Victorian Britain; at the time he did not put his name to the book because she was afraid of his mother’s reaction. As part of his belief in free love her advocated free and shameless contraception; the more famous Besant did so with slightly different motives in mind, and the book tells the story about how she came to her freethinking and radical conclusions.

Edward Truelove will be a new name to almost everybody. He was a printer and book seller in London and fought all of his life for a free press, fighting laws against sedition, blasphemy and obscenity. He published and distributed the work of Drysdale and worked with Annie Besant. He knew every radical in London and he was perhaps the only person who was on speaking terms with both Florence Nightingale and Karl Marx. He was imprisoned for four months in the fight for a free press. He wore prison uniform, pick oakum and sleep on a hard plank bed. He was sixty-eight.

Our central figure, the man who holds the book together, is Charles Bradlaugh, Britain’s most famous atheist. He was part of a radical free speech movement and knew Drysdale, Truelove, Besant and Wolstenholme-Elmy. He made atheism an acceptable intellectual conclusion for future citizens, at considerable personal effort and cost, which is described in the chapter.

Refusing to take a religious oath..

Our next radical Josephine Butler was a campaigner for the rights of woman and is well known for her organised opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts. The Acts themselves were the most egregious example of the sexual double standard of the Victorian era. It was an anti-prostitution action in the major military towns which focused only on woman, regulating theirs action and punishing only them when apprehended.

A man who worked with Butler on her radical campaigning was William Thomas Stead, known as W.T.  As well as being a famous victim of the Titanic accident in 1912, he was Britain’s first campaigning ‘tabloid’ journalists who made his name exposing the sexual mistreatment of women and children. He had other interests too; spiritualism, Esperanto and world peace being only three of them.

Members of the Church of England could be radical, but could not be successful. Our Christian socialist radical is Stuart Headlam. He was a curate who liked actresses and dancers, believed that the kingdom of heaven belonged as much to them as the rich and powerful, and started one of the first socialist groups of any kind in Britain. He was a believer in free speech; when Charles Bradlaugh was in trouble with the authorities for refusing to swear an oath to God, Headlam wrote and offered him the blessings of Christ.

If you are interested or supportive of the British Labour Party (full disclosure; I am an active member) then the chapter on Socialism will ring a bell. It contains a common and an uncommon name. James Kier Hardie was a child coal miner and trade unionist who is the first name in Labour party History; Henry Hyndman was a rich and privileged lawyer who converted to Marxism and represented another strand in the development of socialism. If you wonder why the Labour Party is such a ‘broad church’ today, it is because it still has to accommodate the different views of these two people.

The next chapter busts the myth that Queen Victoria and the monarchy were a fixed a popular point in the era named after her. Republicanism did exist – Bradlaugh, inevitably, was a republican but the most famous one of the era was the wealthy liberal Charles Dilke, and he spearheaded, rather reluctantly, a brief frenzy of mass republicanism which only lasted a few years but left a lingering republican sentiment in Britain which has existed but not rarely thrived since. Dilke had other radical inclinations, but it was his brief republicanism and a messy divorce case which ruined his prospects. He is our only radical Cabinet Minister, and the only one who was ever talked about as Prime Minister.

Finally, a man who actively disliked today, rather than forgotten or celebrated. This is the eugenicist  Francis Galton; indeed he invented the word, from the Greek meaning ‘to live well’, which sounds uncontroversial and even positive, but this is not  the case. His name is linked with racism and genocide, a proto-Nazi; but the whole story is much more complicated than that. The number of people who shared his views is remarkable; while people today may think they completely reject ‘selective breeding’ of humans, the truth is more complicated, and therefore more interesting.

Please suggest the book to your library.

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Books by James Hobson

Poor Women Giving Birth in the Regency- home or hospital?

Where did the Georgian Poor Give Birth?

On one level, the answer to this question is easy; they gave birth in their own home. Unusually for the period, the same is true of the rich, who had great advantages over the common people; but these advantages did not take away the fear of childbirth. Both rich and poor were at the mercy of the germy, unwashed hands of those taking part, but the poor had other problems as well.
The dirt and squalor of their overcrowded homes was a problem, but the most pressing immediate issue was their inability to find, or afford, a reliable midwife. The next stage of the problem appeared if the childbirth was not straightforward, when the poor would not have the networks or money to find somebody with more medical training  who could help.

No help could be expected from the state, so the very poor had two choices the ‘lying in’ hospital- there were a dozen of them on London by 1800 and one in all major provincial towns- or a ‘lying in’ charity which helped the poor to have home births.

The major British Charity for the latter was the ‘Lying in Charity for delivering poor married women in their own habitations’. It was formed in 1757 as a response to the perceived problems of the Lying In Hospitals. Georgian charities had long, cumbersome and descriptive names, which announced what they did, and, more importantly, made it clear what they did not do, e.g the Female Friendly Society and Asylum for the relief of poor infirm and aged Widows and single Women Of good character have seen better days’ or The Mother & Infants Friend Society for relief of Married Women during Confinement if resident within one mile and a half of St Swithin’s Church.

‘The lying in Charity for delivering poor married women in their own habitations’ did an excellent job. By 1818 the charity had helped to deliver nearly 250,000 babies since its inception. It undoubtedly did good things- provided clean linen and straw and the help of a midwife for regular births, and constant on call ‘man midwives’ for more complicated cases. It also trained and vetted midwifes and raised the general standard of the profession. The mid-wives worked on reduced pay for two years and if morally and mediccally sound , received the recommendation of the society and support in their career. The Society continued to work with London’s poor mothers  under different names, until the arrival of the National Health Service in 1948. They were, undoubtedly a good thing.

untitledIt was the appointment of God, in consequence of the first transgression, that is ‘in Sorrow women should bring forth children’ (1772, but reprinted regularly in the Regency) 

However, it was a charity run by the principles of the time, some of which don’t look quite as philanthropic 200 years later. The first, ubiquitous rule was that you had to deserve charity; you were not entitled to it. You had to be selected to be helped, and be respectable, married and poor (for the right reasons). After the successful birth of a child, you were obliged to go to your normal place of worship to thank God (You were disbarred from future help if you did not) and appear in front of the society to thank them as well (although they were often ready to receive the occasional well spoken comment and criticism). Gratitude was required all round; to God and your betters, and there is still Bristol Charity called the Grateful Society, which provided home births and apprenticeships in the eighteenth century and still does charitable work today.

image001It was funded by dinners, galas and sermons where the rich ate well and flaunted their conscience; this did not stop it being a good thing. Its Patron was the Prince Regent, who for most of his reign condescended to contribute £30 a year or so from his taxpayer-funded civil list, and in 1817, its vice-presidents included the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time at a former Mayor of London. Patrons and Presidents would pay an additional subscription of about 10 guineas and gain the right to nominate ten worth individuals per year. The Duke of Wellington was a supporter ‘All London is the Charity’s hospital and every street a ward’.


The Society’s main principle was the undesirability of the ‘Lying In’ Hospital. Firstly, there was the separation of husband and wife- an emotional affair, made worse by the jeopardy that the women was about to encounter. Hospitals were a dangerous place to be pregnant, and thei staff  knew as little about preventing disease as anybody else. There was less segregation of the poor and the sick, and two women in a bed was not unknown. The Society also pointed out that there was no greater, humiliating indication of your poverty  than admission to such a hospital. All this was true and sincerely believed; but they had other, less modern sounding motives.

It was meant to be cheap charity. In 1778, it was calculated that a birth in a hospital was nearly ten times more expensive that a home birth , and was thought by many  that  the poor simply did not deserve this level of expenditure. When questioned about their apparent meanness, the society rightly pointed out that there were so many needy that it was the only way to help was to do it cheaply- better a little help to all, than completely neglecting all.

 Part of the expense of the hospitals was the standard of the food, which would have been higher than the households of the poor themselves. It was morally wrong and impracticable to allow the poor to get used to such food-sometimes three meals a day* Instead, the Society gave mothers  medicine and payments in kind in their own home so money did not have to be diverted into areas that would reduce their ability to afford their normal diet. Laying in hospitals confined the mother for nearly a month,  while straightforward home births could be done in half of this time- so, the hospitals robbed the family of the women’s labour and moral influence, and disrupted the male breadwinner’s work patterns. Some of the society’s literature went as far as suggest that men could not cope on their own with children and housework, and shouldn’t be expected too!

*More on the Lying In Hospitals here

More on my Regency Book here

Three minute  book review here

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Abortion first becomes  a criminal offence-1803

Laws that criminalize abortion are of relatively recent origin in British history and this is the story of the first one, the Malicious Stabbings or Shooting Act, 1803 (‘Lord Ellenborough’s Act’)

Before 1803 there were no laws criminalising a deliberate termination before the ‘quickening’ of the child in the womb, and procuring an abortion afterwards was a relatively minor civil misdemeanour. The case below came before Lord Justice Kenyon in 1801. It was an allegation that somebody had procured an abortion. The Judge pointed out that this was a civil matter, and asked why he was being asked to comment on it in a criminal tribunal;


What did it mean to be ‘quick with child’ in the eighteenth century? Part of the definition was practical there was a quickening if the baby could be physically felt by the mother. There is a wide range of ages for this, but in the Regency period, doctors put the period at around 16 to 20 weeks. Blackstone’s Law Commentaries made the point ‘life begins in condition of law as soon as the infant stirs in the mother’s womb’.

This  most common Georgian view was that ensoulment, and the creation of the human, happened at quickening and not conception. This was an ancient belief that predated Christianity, and the church tended not to contradict it .It had the unintended consequence of allowing women to control their fertility in the first months after a suspected pregnancy. Although details can never be explicit, it seems that women had always controlled their fertility in the period before quickening, both at home and in the commercial market using herbs and the wisdom of other women to reinstate their period.  It was not a crime at all before 1803. This was a practical application of the law- if there was no proof of a foetus in the womb, and then there could be no victim of a crime.

When the human was created, they had rights- for example they could not be executed in the womb if the mother had committed a crime. This was ‘pleading the belly’, and it was a regular but not common aspect of judicial proceedings in the late Georgian period, and of course this continued after the severe tightening up of the law in 1803.

The 1803 Law itself was a rambling piece of legislation in two large paragraphs which was mainly designed to protect people from being attacked and assaulted with weapons, even if death did not result, or even if there was no intention to kill. The unborn child was added to the list of those protected. So, although not specifically an act against abortion, it had a major consequences. It moved the point of  “human” status from quickening to conception , and a new felony was created from something that was not formally illegal
Anybody who…(the bold parts are mine)

wilfully and maliciously administer to, or cause to be administered to, or taken by any woman, any medicines, drug, or other substance or thing whatsoever, or shall use or employ or cause or procure to be used or employed any instrument or other means whatsoever, with intent thereby to cause the miscarriage of any woman not being, or not being proved to be, quick with child at the time of administering such things…shall be and are hereby declared to be guilty of felony, and shall be liable to be fined, imprisoned, set in and upon the pillory, publicly or privately whipped, or to suffer one or more of the said punishments, or to be transported beyond the seas for any term not exceeding fourteen years…

The Roman Catholic Church did not formally declare that life began at conception until 1869- but English statute law did this more than sixty years earlier.

In the inexorable logic of the bloody code, the new penalty for organising or abetting an abortion post ‘quickening’ had to be death. It had previously been a common law misdemeanour, and the application and meaning of the earlier 1624 statue was unclear. This explains Justice Kendall’s reluctance to have anything to do with the abortion allegation in 1801. A more severe tariff  was needed to differentiate it from the newly created crime.

An examination of the law after 1803 shows that it was not often used on women trying to control their fertility, which were by definition private event. It was mostly used when men fell out and wounded each other with knives and cutlasses, or when drunken individuals waved their guns in the streets. Those who wished to intimidate people with violence before robbing them would have to think twice, although in reality the death sentence was hardly ever applied. In a society where murder, attempted murder and writing an anonymous letter threatening murder all carried the same death penalty, there had to be a degree of leniency.

In January 1804 a Mr Corneille and Mr Draper were capitally convicted of wounding police constable J Boardman with a cutlass as he raided as disorderly house in Hatton Garden. In the same year Hugh Evans was found guilty under Ellenborough’s Act of maiming Elizabeth Palmer and slashing her face until she was unrecognisable. He was one of a gang of three who had intimidated Palmer and her boyfriend with a “What are you nosing at?. John Robinson of the 7 Regiment of Dragoon Guards did similar damage in the same year to a fellow soldier. Only nineteen year old Hugh Evans was executed in 1804 for a his motiveless and vicious crime. On average one person per year (out of about 100 executions a year) was executed per year for cutting and maiming in the late Georgian period.
Some women were convicted under this law. The 1803 Act raised the bar of proof against a women who was thought to have killed her child at birth. The prosecution now had to prove that it was born alive rather than the women prove it was born dead. Any slight doubt would acquit the defendant of infanticide, so a new crime of concealment of birth was introduced with a tariff of two years imprisonment. The case below is from 1808;


Ellenborough’s Law almost was particularly difficult for powerless females, such as domestic servants, who did not have the support network to do something about their pregnancy at an earlier time. I have written about another example, that of Mary Fordham, here.

There were other cases. In 1809 Thomas Newton was found guilty of poisoning Elizabeth Turner in order to prompt a miscarriage and was given three years in prison and a fine of £100. The judge made it plain that it would have been the death penalty if she had been quick with child. Oddly, he was spared transportation because Elizabeth had cooperated with him and survived the attack.

Please consider my three books on the Georgian and Victorian Era

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here

Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here

Radical Victorians– nineteen radical Victorian men and women who dared to think differently. More details here 

Child Stealing in the Regency

There were three broad reasons to steal a child in the Regency. The first was to rob it of its clothes, and then leave the naked child somewhere where it could be found. The second, much less common than the first, was for a grief stricken family to take a child in exchange for a child that had died. The third was to steal a child for criminal reasons- for abuse, for sale on to a chimney sweep or similar child based trade, or as an accessory for a beggar in order to elicit more money through pity.

Until 1814, only stealing a child’s clothes was a crime. High quality children’s clothes had a solid second hand resale  value and could be sold with no questions asked. Most children were stolen from outside their house; a smaller number were stolen from prams; some were taken as they were doing errands for their parents.
If there was a traditional form of child abduction, it went something like this: this is from January 1810:


Most children were near their home when abducted. The main method of decoy was to offer them a treat (money, sweets, or fruit) and then take the child was far enough from home to commit the robbery with ease. On most occasions, all clothes would be taken and child left with nothing. Occasionally they were abandoned somewhere dangerous such as underneath a  bridge at the mercy of the tide, but most of the time they were left in a place that would allow them to be found, but not that quickly. The child was stripped naked; the rug might have been a concession to the fact that it was the middle of winter, rugs are a common reference in the newspapers when kidnapped children were found.

The vast majority of child stealing was done by women, who were more likely to gain the trust of the child quickly. Ana King, age 19 described her method:


The mob opted for instant justice here, although they need not have worried too much. There were witnesses that saw the clothes being stolen. Ana King, like another robber in the newspaper Frances Dunkerley, ‘ a strong and stout young women’ was found guilty and was transported to Australia. In Frances’s case, the crime was of stealing a child’s frock worth a shilling.

Child abduction was not a crime until 1814. If you were in possession of a child which  you had no rights to, then that was not in itself a crime. Theft of property had to be proved and, if  that could not be done, then the accused went free. If nobody had witnessed the theft, then the only way to convict is on the evidence of the second hand clothes dealer, who may have kept some records and may have known the person who was fencing the clothes- but these people were very rare.
The mob often got involved in child stealing cases, providing instant justice to the robber, knowing that it was far from certain that the courts would do it.Throwing them into a stinking pond, ditch or cesspit seemed to be favourite. Some child robbers were found guilty, but discharged, as was William Yeats in Oxford in 1814- the only man I found in my research.
The most famous child stealing case was that of Thomas Dellow. The story is told very well by Naomi Clifford .
On 18 November, three-year-old Thomas Dellow was stolen from his parents’ green-grocers shop St. Martins Lane, Upper Thames Street. A kindly lady had come in and bought some apples, one of which she gave to him. She asked the boy’s sister to direct her to a pastry shop where she would buy a treat for them. Their mother, being distracted with customers, did not object. At the pastry shop the woman promptly took up the boy and disappeared with him.

The distraught parents found him three months later in Gosport, Hampshire When the women, Harriet Magnes, was questioned in London about the events, her story was that she had found the boy in London and taken it home; her husband having said that she would love her more if she presented him with a boy, a request that he took literally. She claimed to have given birth to the child when her husband was at sea.

When their infamy spread through Gosport and Portsmouth, Mr Magnes became so embarrassed with the fuss that-the newspaper reported – he asked the magistrates for a divorce from his wife, which seemed eminently unreasonable, as his unrealistic expectations  caused the problem in the first place.

Harriet had looked after the children moderately well- the newspaper reported a bit sniffily that their house was as  clean and comfortable as you could expect from an artisan. No crime had been committed, despite the anguish of the child’s parents, made worse by the fact that Thomas did not recognise them when they were reunited.

This changed in 1814, when stealing a child less than ten years was made a felony, punishable with seven years transportation. The act exempted any actions by fathers who wished to remove their legitimate or illegitimate children from their mothers. They were still allowed to do this by any means necessary-this new law was deliberately written to avoid giving any new rights to women.

New, severe punishments started to appear in 1815 when the new Act was enforced. In January, Sarah Stone was convicted for abducting a child of the poor women Catherine Kremer, who used her child to ‘ excite compassion’ as she begged in St Paul’s churchyard. Despite her wretched condition, Catherine spent weeks looking for her child and finally tracked her down to a ship that was just leaving the country. In reality, it was Sarah Stone who left the country on her own. She was sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay on 28 January 1815. On the same day, two twelve year old boys , Jones and Tidley, were given the same punishment for stealing handkerchiefs. They were in an organised gang of twenty or so boys, which in the eyes of the besieged property owners made it a far worse crime than theft by individuals.

Naomi Clifford


If you enjoyed this, please consider my book (above) either to buy or to recommend to a library. All new material.

A short description from the publisher here 

A chapter-by-chapter breakdown here