Saturday, May 11, 2013

Victorian Violence: Repelling Ruffians (Part One)

by Terry Kroenung

 "The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.

She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief--Rose Maylie's own--and holding it up, in her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.

It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down."
    --- Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

To judge by this disturbing scene (or, indeed, any episode of Ripper Street) it was as much as a man’s life was worth to walk the streets of Victorian London. Robbery and murder were commonplace, pickpockets were as ubiquitous as fleas on a mongrel, and as for an unaccompanied woman, well…

But was that true? Or were the news reports of that era just as slanted toward the sensational as are our own? ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the motto of modern media and certainly British journalism of the 19th century could hardly claim to be more scrupulous. The truth is that we do not know with any degree of certainty.

Then as now circumstances and geography dictated risk. Jack the Ripper’s outrages were committed in sordid Whitechapel, after all, and not in genteel Kensington. A critical mass of the poor and desperate has always led to increased criminality.

Wise ladies and gentlemen preferred to avoid dirty, ill-lit areas with foul reputations. Forewarned is forearmed and all that. Yet an assault could happen at any time and place. It was no respecter of persons, either. In 1862 a Member of Parliament was garroted and robbed in broad daylight in Pall Mall.

Earlier centuries may well have been worse. The gin-soaked gutters of Hogarth’s time, with none of Robert Peel’s bluebottles or even the Bow Street Runners to keep the peace, were likely a horror-show. A noticeable decrease in wretchedness did occur with the advent of the Metropolitan Police, though it took until the 1880’s for that force to gain wide-spread respect. Ennui was not a risk faced by the Peelers.

In a typical Dickensian year (1856) the force arrested over 73,000 people. And we would do well to remember that an enormous percentage of crimes went unreported or unrecorded. The citizenry did not trust its own officers, often with good reason. Particularly in the early days the policeman was often just as likely as the most hardened East Ender to be guilty of an offense.

Even if the bobby was honest, many residents felt it a waste of time to make a complaint, since so many crimes were not solved. Let us give savagery the benefit of the doubt and presume that it was enough of a concern that measures had to be taken.

To this end most men of the middle and upper classes considered training in pugilism and singlestick to be an essential part of their education. When faced with a determined defender, many a hooligan would likely seek easier prey. Quite apart from such practical considerations, the manly arts also served to toughen the mind and spirit, preparing a fellow for the rugged vicissitudes of life. Instructional manuals abounded, all stressing this point:

"Physical education is indispensable to every well-bred man and woman. A gentleman should not only know how to fence, to box, to ride, to shoot and to swim, but he should also know how to carry himself gracefully, and how to dance, if he would enjoy life to the uttermost. A graceful carriage can best be attained by the aid of a drilling master, as dancing and boxing are taught. A man should be able to defend himself from ruffians, if attacked, and also to defend women from their insults."
     --- Our Deportment, 1879

Naturally certain of these skills were better-suited to the country house than the alleys of the metropolis. Be that as it may, expertise with stick and fist doubtless preserved many a life when faced with a resolute robber in a fetid corner of the Empire’s capital. At a minimum it would have enabled the victim to keep a cool head and react with grace under pressure.

In Part Two we shall investigate what techniques and tools would have been available to a gentleman, or lady, in such duress.


Terry Kroenung is the author of Brimstone and Lily, a seriocomic fantasy novel set in 1862, and its sequel, Jasper’s Foul Tongue. Book 3 in the series, Jasper’s Magick Corset, will be available in September. Paragon of the Eccentric, his Steampunk prequel to War of the Worlds, is pending. He has also written dramas set in the 19th century, such as Gentle Rain and Coolness and Courage.

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