Death and Disease Behind the Counter

This term, the Diseases of Modern Life team showcased their research at two major public engagement events – our Victorian Speed Late at the Museum of the History of Science and Victorian Light Night with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Both provided great platforms for me to share my new research on ill-health and retail work in the late nineteenth century, and to chat to the public about work-life balance then and now.

At both events I ran an activity called ‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ – a title taken from Thomas Sutherst’s 1884 book of the same name. Sutherst was a barrister who campaigned to improve living and working conditions for shop assistants. His book brings together a range of stories (allegedly) from shop workers, which highlight the overwork endemic in the retail industry. While many people today are aware of the brutalities of Victorian factory work, few know about the pressures that faced shop assistants – my aim was to bring this issue into the public consciousness.


Alison talks to visitors at Victorian Light Night. Photo by Stuart Bebb.

For the Victorian Speed event we were focusing on time pressures, so I devised an activity that explored a ‘Day in the Life’ of the Victorian shop assistant. I identified a range of case studies to share, drawing on primary sources including literature, journalism, life-writing, and campaigning material such as Sutherst’s book. In prepping materials for the activity, I had to get to grips with Excel (long forgotten since my schooldays) so I could devise pie charts divided into 24 hours to represent the day. I split the charts into different categories, logging how much time each of my case study shop workers spent on sleep/leisure, meals, and work. Given the nature of the sources, it was difficult to plot any more granular details, though we know that the evening entertainments available to shop workers ranged from reading periodicals to visiting the pub or music-hall. Alongside the pie charts, I included quotes from my primary sources that conveyed some of the pressures of retail work, such as how assistants felt towards the end of the day, after 12 or more hours standing on their feet, with minimal breaks.

Day in the Life

This pie chart plots a typical day in the life of Arthur Kipps, the 14 year-old apprentice in H.G. Wells’s 1905 novel Kipps.

These pie charts were a great way to engage people in conversations about the working life of Victorian shop assistants. Members of the public were divided over whether the average working days looked hellish or manageable. Some were shocked at how young the apprentices were, and how they often bore the brunt of the work (starting early to clean the shop floor). One of my examples was the author H.G. Wells, whose autobiography records his experiences of entering shop work at 13. Many people were also surprised to discover how long Victorian shops were open for – I explained that businesses seeking to attract working-class customers often stayed open late into the evenings to pick-up trade from people travelling home after work. On the other hand, some visitors noted that there were few arduous commutes shown on the pie charts. Only one of my case studies – an unnamed female assistant in a baker’s shop – described how unpaid overtime risked her missing the last journey home. Some of my visitors said that at least shop assistants had a designated time set aside for meals (typically 15-20 minutes) while they snatched their lunch breaks at their desks.

The main message I wanted to communicate, however, was that the apparent separation between work and leisure was, in many ways, misleading. The vast majority of shop assistants lived on-site, in accommodation provided by their employers. They often shared rooms (perhaps even beds) with their colleagues, ate food chosen by their employers, and lived under rules imposed by their boss (with fines for breaking curfew, for example). After hearing this, many participants conceded that the Victorian shop worker was even less fortunate than they’d supposed. We talked about the emotional pressures of living and working in one space, possibly without a sense of freedom.

As part of the activity I invited participants to plot their own ‘average working day’. Adults, children and teenagers all got involved, colouring in blank templates of my 24-hour pie chart. They tracked how much time they spent travelling, at work/school, or enjoying leisure time. While some clocked up lengthy hours at work, many were surprised to see that they spent comparatively little time in the office, though some noted they continued to check emails once home. I enjoyed chatting to kids about how they divided their evenings between homework and ‘screen time’ and the role their parents played in regulating this. After completing their pie charts many participants reflected that they had a better time than the Victorians! Though they also spotted plenty of parallels – such as how the boundaries between work/leisure time might be blurred or how ‘free time’ might be circumscribed by the expectations and rules of others.

A Day in the Life - Pie Chat

A parent tracks how much time they spend on ‘paid work’ and ‘kid work’, with a sliver left for ‘leisure’.

Finally, my activity also invited any visitors with their own experiences of life on the shop floor to share their (modern-day) retail work horror stories. While some had fond memories of shoplife, I was surprised and shocked by some of the awful tales I heard. A major theme was rudeness and harassment from customers. One person said that a customer had hurled a chair at them because they didn’t like queuing, while another reported that, at Christmas, a stressed shopper had thrown brussel sprouts at them because the shop was out of brie. One person recalled being ‘spat on and violently prodded’, while several (men and women) spoke about being propositioned by customers. Victorian shop workers, who were expected to be deferential to their customers, no doubt suffered similar horrors. Many of my participants also shared stories of minimal or non-existent breaks, long working days, and the excruciating tedium of working in a shop – one person described feelings of ‘emptiness’, while another said it was like a ‘living death’. This reminded me of a passage in Wells’s semi-autobiographical novel Kipps (1905), where the narrator describes how the titular character (a young apprentice in the drapery business) ‘plumbed an abyss of boredom, or stood a mere carcass with his mind far away’.

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ was a great activity to get people talking about the lives of shop workers then and now. Having visual materials and a hands-on activity enabled me to have more in-depth conversations with people, and I was fascinated to hear people’s responses to the activity and their own insights into the pressures of shop work. One of the main myths busted was the idea that long opening hours were a modern invention – these were very much a product of Victorian consumerism!



This is Your Brain on Speed

The Australian television series, The Weekly, recently ran an exposé on the putative  benefits of the profusion of whey protein powders currently being marketed as bodybuilding aids. Their evidence suggested that the use of these products resulted in, at best, ‘very expensive urine’, but they are nonetheless sold promising miraculous weight-loss and muscle-mass increase. These advertisements with their wild spurious claims put me in mind of the nineteenth-century image of the snake-oil salesman, hawking his concoctions of dubious origin and even more dubious efficacy on unsuspecting rubes. A leaf through almost any late nineteenth-century periodical will turn up at least one print ad for some sort of wonder elixir, a significant portion of which are alleged to function upon the nerves. The advantage to this claim was that it was very difficult to disprove, the nervous system being still little understood.

L0058547 Bottle of Huxley's 'Ner-Vigor', England, 1892-1943 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images Huxley’s ‘Ner-Vigor’ was sold as a strengthening tonic for the nerves and to improve digestion. Made by the Anglo-American Pharmaceutical Co Ltd, based in Croydon, the tonic was prescribed for clinical depression, neurasthenia, anaemia, rickets, and sciatica. It was suggested that a teaspoonful should be added to half a wine glass of water and drunk three times a day after meals. Like some other medical products of the period, it contains a very small measure of the highly dangerous poison strychnine. The makers of the tonic claimed that it received favourable reviews in the medical press. maker: Anglo-American Pharmaceutical Company Limited Place made: Croydon, Croydon, Greater London, England, United Kingdom made: 1892-1943 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

 Bottle of Huxley’s ‘Ner-Vigor’, England, 1892-1943
Huxley’s ‘Ner-Vigor’ was sold as a strengthening tonic for the nerves . Like other medical products of the period, it contains a small measure of strychnine.

Not surprisingly, this medical fiction became evident in literary fiction also, with a number of writers imaginatively exploring the mental and physical possibilities, and potential dangers, of successfully achieving superior, or even superhuman, nervous functioning. Frank Aubrey’s The Devil Tree of El Dorado: A Romance of British Guiana (1897), for example, featured a herbal potion designed to restore energy to the nerves and lengthen the individual life-span by an extraordinary degree. Edith Nesbit’s ‘The Third Drug’ (1909) imagined a remedy whose imbiber may, if his nervous system could successfully withstand the potent effects induced by the first and second drugs, develop superhuman powers of sensory perception, memory, and understanding. More famously, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll devises a formula that releases his animalistic and uncivilised self in the shape of the demonic Mr Hyde.

Frequently, these potions are figured as drastically, and often quite violently, reconfiguring and rewiring the nervous system in order to wreak some kind of evolutionary advantage by bringing its processes up to speed with the mental and physical demands of modern life. The topic held a particular fascination for H.G. Wells, as in his Invisible Man (1897), where the medical student Griffin invents chemicals capable of rendering the human body invisible. Wells was intimately familiar with the late nineteenth-century fashion for nerve tonics, having served an apprenticeship in a chemist in his younger days, which experience inspired the satirical treatment of the patent medicine industry in Tono-Bungay (1909). However, it is his 1901 short story ‘The New Accelerator’ that most neatly demonstrates the period’s preoccupation with nerve tonics and their place in a changing culture.

The tale concerns one Professor Gibberne, an unrivalled chemist of soporifics, sedatives, and anaesthetics, who has dedicated himself to developing an ‘all-round nervous stimulant to bring languid people up to the stresses of these pushful days’. As Gibberne observes, the human experience of ordinary time is steadily accelerating, and the constant whirl of external stimuli is increasingly operating at a level beyond the capacity of the human mind and nervous system to process effectively. His eponymous new accelerator is therefore designed to redress this balance, for, unlike what he sees as the rather more unequal and localised operations of other nerve tonics, it is designed to stimulate all the individual’s physiological and cognitive processes by several hundred orders of magnitude at once.  This will effectively speed up the operations and reaction times of both mind and body, and push them beyond the present physical and spatio-temporal limitations of the age. On consuming the Accelerator together in an act of self-experimentation, Gibberne discovers that, because of the speed with which his nervous system is responding to external stimuli, the outside world has apparently slowed almost to immobility. A bee appears to hang in the air with its wings ‘flapping slowly and at the speed of an exceptionally languid snail’; a little poodle dog is ‘suspended in the act of leaping’, and the music of the marching band playing nearby is reduced to ‘a low-pitched, wheezy rattle, a sort of prolonged last sigh that passed at times into a sound like the slow, muffled ticking of dummies hung unstably in mid-stride, promenading upon the grass’. To the outside observer, meanwhile, Gibberne is moving at such a speed that he blurs into invisibility from the naked eye, and is thereby freed from the demands and responsibilities of modern life.

Wells’s picture of the nervous system’s workings was based on speculation (as indeed were the nerve tonics actually sold), but he was in fact more accurate than he may have suspected. In 2014, the BBC reported upon the case of a man who suffered an aneurysm that effectively slowed down his perception of time ( Waking with a headache, he took a shower, only to find he could see the water droplets coming from the shower head hanging in mid-air. The case was not unique, and it is not uncommon for the brain to initiate this kind of time warp at moments of extreme stress. It is actually possible, researchers at Valtteri Astila University in Finland maintain, to train the brain to perform in this way on cue, as some professional surfers and ballerinas are able to do. Sadly, no one has yet found a way to bottle and sell it in Boots.

Melissa Dickson

Requiem for a Cliché

One of the hallmarks of the sci-fi horror genre is its tendency to generate instant clichés. In the digital age, the lag-time between the initial appearance of an innovative and genuinely frightening cinematic moment and its inevitable end in yawn-inducing familiarity is extraordinarily brief. Of course, this is not surprising. A scare by its very nature needs to be unexpected. Once we are able to see it coming, its potency is lost. But, like all good monsters, it dies at least twice, its double-death inhering in its especial vulnerability to parody. Thus, the truly disturbing creature created for the Alien films by H.R. Giger, a nightmarish meld of the mechanical, the bestial and perverse sexuality, before it descended into the unbelievable crassness of the Alien vs. Predator spinoff franchise twenty-five years and some half dozen films after its debut, had actually already reached its use-by-date as a scare tactic by the time of the first sequel. Within a year of 1986’s Aliens, Mel Brooks had the monster burst from John Hurt’s stomach once again, this time to perform a Looney Tunes-style rendition of “Hello, Ma Baby” complete with a straw boater, in Spaceballs.

Its ignominious future notwithstanding, back in 1979, Giger’s alien design was revolutionary because it departed from the tentacled type that had become the well-worn and utterly expected shape assumed by extra-terrestrial lifeforms in cinema. Giger’s alien found its monstrousness by drawing upon resources from outside the folkloric tradition. In this way, Giger mirrored the earlier radical break that had given rise to the very kind of alien-octopus he sought to distance himself from, the kind of creature epitomised by those that appeared in the later tales of the American author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). As China Miéville notes, “rather than werewolves, vampires, or ghosts, Lovecraft’s monsters are agglomerations of bubbles, barrels, cones, and corpses, patchworked from cephalopods, insects, crustaceans, and other fauna, notable particularly for their absence from the traditional Western monstrous.” Cephalopods were a favourite of Lovecraft’s, with the tentacle becoming his default type of monstrous limb but one which had previously seen proto-iterations in the fantastic horrors of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo (Miéville 512).

20000 Leagues Under SeaEngraving of Captain Nemo viewing a giant squid from  the Nautilus submarine, originally featured in the Hetzel edition (1870) of 20,000 Lieues Sous Les Mers

It is not difficult to point to concerns in contemporary culture that may have given rise to Giger’s seductive biomechanical alien, such as the deepening in the complexity of our understanding of gender and sexuality, and our increased dependence on technology and machinery for our very existence. We may similarly speculate as to why the correlation between the alien and the octopus might have had stronger resonances within the nineteenth-century consciousness. I would posit a connection between the tentacle – this flexible, elongated, and generally highly receptive organ – and the new pervasiveness of the nervous system in nineteenth-century constructions of modern life. This is made quite clear by the frequent conflation of tentacles and nerves in the portrayal in the period of alien and monstrous races.

Like the human-eating ‘Sea Raiders’ of Wells’s 1896 short story,  the bizarre creatures to be found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Horror of the Heights’ (1913), and the monstrous squid in Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (1866) and later in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), the creatures that inhabit aliens worlds are complex masses of brains, tentacles, coils, and nervous centres, and they evoke the disturbing sense that they conceal an intelligence superior to humanity behind an alien, unknowable form. Explicitly compared to the octopus by an eye witness to their invasion, Wells’s Martians in The War of the Worlds are, like the cephalopod, comprised of highly complex nervous systems arranged around a comparatively large and almost transparent brain. Each Martian is approximately four foot in diameter, the majority of which consists of “the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear and tactile tentacles”. Similarly, the Grand Lunar, the ruler of the Selenites in The First Men on the Moon is simply a “marvellous gigantic ganglion” that relays sensations and neural commands across the vast network of Selenite minds.

dudouyt-martians-war-of-the-worldsM. Dudouyt’s vision of the Martians from the 1917 edition of War of the Worlds

This, then, might be the third death to which the genuine thrill is doomed. Since its efficacy depends upon its ability to tap into anxieties and preoccupations of its specific historical moment, once these conditions that supported it no longer exist, it is left to flounder as ungainly as a squid out of water.

Melissa Dickson