Project Launch Event at St Anne’s College

On November 6, Professor Sally Shuttleworth’s two research projects, ‘Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives’ and ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries’ were launched at St Anne’s College. Researchers from both projects gave short presentations to a packed audience including St Anne’s Fellows and students and representatives from universities, museums and scientific institutions across the UK.

The evening began with a welcome and introduction by the Principal of St Anne’s College, Tim Gardam, and Professor Shuttleworth began the presentations by introducing the Diseases of Modern Life project. Researchers Drs Amelia Bonea, Jennifer Wallis and Melissa Dickson each gave a short talk on nineteenth-century concerns about the pace of modern life.

Dr Amelia Bonea’s talk focused on the office, a less explored site of occupational hazards in the nineteenth century. She discussed the high incidence of tuberculosis among Victorian clerks as well as a host of other diseases associated with sedentary work and the use of office technologies, such as diseases of the digestive and circulatory systems and musculoskeletal disorders like writer’s cramp and telegraphist’s cramp.

Dr Jennifer Wallis then took the audience out of the office and into the open air, considering the role of the environment in Victorian experiences of modern life. In attempting to circumvent the perils of the polluted, smoggy city, Victorians came up with a number of ‘air technologies’, all of which promised to bolster health and allowed people to alter their immediate environments. Jennifer introduced us to a few of these, including the compressed air bath, ozone papers for air purification, and portable ‘respirators’ worn over the mouth.

Dr Melissa Dickson told us of the growing urban cacophony of the nineteenth century, which wreaked havoc on its inhabitants’ nerves, and outlined some of the period’s medical and scientific research into sound and music that might be healing – a tonic rather than a toxin. Dr Dickson’s presentation on sound included an illustration of the ‘cat piano’ involving live cats, which was fortunately never a reality.

Professor Shuttleworth then introduced the Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries project. Details of these presentations are available on the project website news page.

We would like to thank all those who attended the event and made it such an enjoyable evening.

Photo Credits:

_MG_3302 Sally Shuttleworth

_MG_3406 Diseases Project Panel



The Disorder of Spoiled Children

I’m sure the old platitude that ‘Christmas comes earlier every year’ is true. The Christmas tree went up in our town square two weekends ago, there is a steady stream of junk email flowing into my inbox exhorting me to ‘Get ready for Christmas!’, and – halfway through November – I’ve already seen my first group of carol singers in Oxford city centre. Accompanying the carol singers was another noise that many associate just as closely with the pre-Christmas season: a small child howling on a shop floor, a red-faced parent looking on as their bundle of joy delivers a passionate homily on the unfairness of life and the shocking inhumanity of it all. For hovering alongside the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future is the spectre of over-indulgence.


The spoiled child is not just a product of the modern technological age, however, hankering after iPads and internet-connected dolls (yes, really – the horror film potential of My Friend Cayla is enormous). Pampered children are figures often found in nineteenth-century novels, or satirised in ‘cautionary tales’ such as the iconic Struwwelpeter, in which Augustus (the boy who would not have any soup, above) wastes away to a skeleton as a result of his fussiness. Stories in popular magazines depicted fictional children like those of the ‘Pimento family’ as ‘torturations’ running riot through the house and oblivious to the comfort of others:

Master Alfred could rant the soliloquies in Douglas, and, to shew the versatility of his genius, perform “Little Pickle,” with an additional scene … in which he set fire to a chintz curtain, broke some china chimney-ornaments, upset a dumb-waiter, and fired a cracker under the chair of his indulgent papa. (Anon, ‘The Pimento Family; or, Spoiled Children’, Monthly Magazine, June 1829).

Besides his or her comedic value, though, the spoiled child had a more serious side, as André Théodore Brochard suggested when he included a section on the matter in his 1865 book, Sea-Air and Sea-Bathing for Children and Invalids:

These cases too often depend upon the culpable weakness of the parents. Much more common than is generally supposed, they present a set of symptoms which it is the most difficult thing in the world to relegate to any particular organ or seat. To give them a name, which shall embrace in one term all their multitudinous, though almost identical, causes, I shall call it the disorder of spoiled children.

‘The disorder of spoiled children’, caused by over-indulgent parents who pandered to their child’s every whim, could cause a whole host of unpleasant bodily and mental effects. ‘Depraved appetites’ – for nothing but chocolate, or unripe vegetables – led to altered constitutions, the child becoming ‘lymphatic, scrofulous, and often consumptive’. There were also longer-term psychological effects of spoiling: the child indulged by his parents is given a rude awakening when he grows up, discovering that not everyone finds him so enchanting as his permissive mother and father:

…suffering under an accumulation of real and fancied ills, his misery becomes so great and insupportable, that sullen or furious insanity, or dreadful suicide may soon be expected to succeed. (James Parkinson, Observations on the excessive indulgence of children, particularly intended to show its injurious effects on their health, and the difficulties it occasions in their treatment during sickness, 1807).

Many articles placed the blame for spoiled children firmly on the heads of the parents, but particularly mothers, demonstrating that anxieties about the place of motherhood in modern life are far from a modern phenomenon. ‘In the mad race after pleasure and excitement now going on, ‘ wrote The Saturday Review in 1868, ‘the tender duties of motherhood have become simply disagreeable restraints’. Women of the middle and upper classes, caught up in new consumer society, were said to dress their children in expensive new fashions and send them to even more expensive schools, but neglect their simple moral education, instead handing them over to governesses and nurses. A short story in The London Reader of 1865, ‘The Spoiled Child’, was explicit about the potentially dire consequences of such behaviour, following young Harry Hillgrove whose early spoiling leads him to theft and alcoholism in later life. He abandons his mother and turns to a life of crime, but Mrs Hillgrove’s parenting mistakes come back to haunt her when Harry breaks into her house; she dies from shock and Harry, reflecting upon his mistakes, commits suicide.

Illustration from Judy: or, The London Serio-Comic Journal (1899).

Illustration from Judy: or, The London Serio-Comic Journal (1899).

Nineteenth-century concerns for spoiled children were not simply the stuff of sensation fiction, but drew upon contemporary ideas about the development of the nervous system and laws of heredity, considering how the process of growing up might literally – and permanently – alter the fabric of the body and brain. The most thoughtless thing that parents could do, both for the future happiness of their offspring and for the good of society more generally, was to indulge their children in ‘lumps of sugar’, ‘wine as a treat’, or ‘heated and unhealthy amusements during the holidays’. The problem was bringing the parent to recognise the folly of their behaviour. As a joke in The London Journal wryly observed:

 “There’s one good thing about spoiled children.”

“What’s that?”

“One never has them in one’s own house.”

Reading the Victorian Press

Reading Victorian periodicals is one of the most important aspects of our work on the “Diseases of Modern Life” project. Each of the project members is responsible for researching two thematic strands as well as our own book projects. In my case the strands are “Diseases of the Professions” and “Diseases of Finance and Speculation”; Jennifer is looking at “Addiction” and “Climate and Health”, while Melissa covers “Education and Over-pressure” and “Nervous Diseases and Phobias”. The range of periodicals we examine is quite broad, from popular magazines such as Belgravia, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and Leisure Hour to more specialized publications like the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, the Sanitary Record and the Medical Times and Gazette. My own list of periodicals-to-read also includes a good number of technical publications such as The Electrician, association journals like The Postal Clerk’s Herald as well as medical journals published in British India (the Madras Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, the Indian Annals of Medical Science, etc.) which so far have not received the scholarly attention they deserve.

Needless to say, nineteenth-century periodicals are a treasure trove of information for historians. My recent survey of Leisure Hour provided fascinating insight into various aspects of the working lives of Victorian clerks, from the manual skills and work ethics they were required to possess to the stress of promotion and overwork and even the hassle of commuting by omnibus. The drudgery and mental strain of clerical work are familiar themes of Victorian writing. Take the example of the General Post Office located in St Martin’s-le-Grand, where letters, newspapers and other postal matter were sorted and stamped by “active, earnest-looking, time-begrudging beings”, who laboured incessantly under the supervision of taskmasters and that ubiquitous marker of the modern temporal order, a “large, clear-faced clock”. The drive towards efficiency and speed was visible not only in the orderly design of the office, where men sat at “long rows of tables, desks and shelves”, but also in the rigid differentiation of tasks and the seemingly uninterrupted flow of work. Manual dexterity, rapidity, concentration, precision and endurance were only some of the many qualities demanded of a postal clerk:

This task [stamping the letters] is confided to a nimble-fingered gentleman, who seems inclined to back himself against any steam-engine under the roof, past, present, or to come. Placing a number of letters before him in an upright position, with the postage head in the upper right corner, he strokes them down gently but rapidly, one by one, under his right hand, which holds the stamping die, and comes down with unerring precision and bewildering rapidity full upon the label. A hundred heads are damaged in a minute by this skilful operator … and the only partial break that occurs in his labour is when a letter either wants a head, or contains it in the lower left hand, instead of the upper right-hand corner. Dipping the die on to the ink-brush or stamping a paper at intervals, that stands at his side, to keep a rough record in twenties or fifties of the letters passing through the office for that night’s mail, are eccentric diversions of the head-blotting duty, performed almost too quickly to strike the eye.

The Post Office, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Post Office, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons)

The amount of postal matter handled by the Post Office was enormous. Alone in 1858, an impressive 523 million letters, 71 million newspapers and 7.25 million book packets were delivered in the United Kingdom. That printed matter circulated extensively is amply demonstrated by such figures. But who were the readers of this vast empire of the printed word? (And empire it was, both literally and figuratively, if we consider the range of circulation of some of these publications: in 1872, the Madras Monthly Journal of Medical Science subscribed to The Lancet, the Dublin Journal, the Medical Press and Circular, the British Medical Journal, the Edinburgh Medical Journal and the Pharmaceutical Journal, not to mention a few other Indian and French publications).

While Victorian periodicals offer numerous insights into the production stage of newspapers and periodicals, familiarizing contemporary readers and eager historians with the nature of editorial duties, the adventures of war correspondents like William Howard Russell and the health hazards to which compositors were exposed, it is less often that we get to find out what happened to these publications in the stages of circulation and consumption. The readers are, more often than not, an elusive entity that reaches us through the paratext of a long-forgotten newspaper, the occasional correspondence and lists of subscribers published in the press or through the mediating power of the Victorian literary imagination. It is thus that we find out that a copy of the Asiatic Mirror and Commercial Advertiser published in Calcutta and dated 7 March 1798 was “[f?]or Ralph Luke Esq Longford Shropshire” or  that the daily routine of a counting-house clerk included “read[ing] his letters at breakfast … and look[ing] at the newspaper for a little while after dinner” (Mark Rutherford, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, 1889). Also, that Amy Reardon was attracted to “solid periodicals” which targeted the “educated, but not strictly studious, persons, and which form[ed] the reservoir of conversation for society above the sphere of turf and west-endism” (George Gissing, New Grub Street, 1891).

But visual evidence of readers and especially of their reading environments is hard to come by, which is why discoveries like the images below are particularly exciting for the 21st-century historian. More so because they testify to the ability of the Victorian printing press to forge communities of readers not only across territorial boundaries, but also across temporal ones. My office (and indeed, my home) is a far cry from the affluent-looking homes of some of the Leisure Hour readers and my access to periodicals is often mediated by technologies the Victorians could have only imagined, but it is intruiging to think that, a century and a half apart, we are actually sharing the experience of reading the same paper.

Portraits from a series of “Newspaper Reading Types” published in 1893 by the English Illustrated Magazine.

The Morning Advertiser

Reader of the Morning Advertiser (English Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

The Times

Reader of The Times (English Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

English Illustrated Magazine 1893Reader of Tit-Bits (English Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

By the turn of the century, photography takes the reader into the (rather affluent) homes of some of the Leisure Hour subscribers. These images seem to have been selected from among entries submitted to a photography competition.

Leisure Hour 1901

Leisure Hour 1901“Homes of Our Readers” (Leisure Hour, 1901)


Amelia Bonea