We all know about certain Victorians - Florence Nightingale, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Dr. Barnardo, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Disraeli, Charles Dickens, Octavia Hill - but the period also produced hundreds of fascinating, often eccentric, characters whose names remain uncelebrated.
I thought it might be interesting to mention one or two unusual victorian characters, every now and then.....
(1858 - 1926)
The man who created the Proms
Robert was born into a wealthy family, and was trained in Italy as a singer.
He had hopes of producing popular classical concerts, but soon found that the general British public did not share his elevated taste in music.
He did not, however, give up.
He told his conductor, Henry Wood:
"I am going to run nightly concerts, and train the public by easy stages.
Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created an audience for both popular and classical music."
He chose to advertise "Promenade Concerts,"during which patrons were allowed considerable freedom of movement and behaviour.
They were informal, varied and quite noisy affairs.
This is an early promenade concert, at Covent Garden.
The first of the actual Proms, or as they were then known, "Mr. Robert Newman's Promenade Concerts," was performed on August 10, 1895.
The original concerts lasted for three hours and were a mix of classical works in the first half and pieces from popular operas in the second.
The tickets cost one shilling (five pence) for a single concert or a guinea (£1.05) for a season ticket.
They were called Promenade concerts because a large part of the seating area had no seats and so the patrons had to stand during the performances.
This is still true at Proms concerts in London today, and dedicated Prommers will tell you that this is the best place to be.
During the original Proms the patrons were free to move about, smoke, eat and drink, as Newman and Wood wanted to keep the atmosphere as informal as possible, although customers were asked not to strike matches during vocal performances.
The chosen venue was the Queen's Hall in Regent Street, and although these early Proms were lengthy they were an instant success.
The Queen's Hall was a concert hall, opened in 1893.
Designed by the architect T.E. Knightley, it had room for an audience of about 2,500 people.
It became London's principal concert venue.
From 1895 until 1941, it was the home of the promenade concerts founded by Robert Newman together with Henry Wood.
The hall had drab decor and cramped seating but superb acoustics.
It became known as the "musical centre of the [British] Empire", and the leading musicians of the late 19th and early 20th century performed there, including Claude Debussy, Edward Elgar, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss.
In the 1930s, the hall became the main London base of two new orchestras, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1941, during the Second World War, the building was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in the London Blitz.
Despite much lobbying for the hall to be rebuilt, the government decided against doing so.
The main musical functions of the Queen's Hall were taken over by the Royal Albert Hall for the Proms, and the new Royal Festival Hall for the general concert season.
Programmes featured popular classics, interspersed with more serious pieces, performed by a resident orchestra, and as the years went by there was the addition of the "Grand Fantasia," a medley of popular highlights from opera.
The essential pattern established by Newman has been followed to this day.
Until 1915 the Proms continued to be presented as "Mr. Robert Newman's Promenade Concerts," but then, due to Robert's financial problems, they were taken over by the music publisher Chappell & Co.
However, Robert remained involved in the presentation of the concerts until he died in 1926.
And the Proms have survived until today!
Henry Wood, the conductor, was knighted and became far more famous than Robert Newman, who was in fact the originator of a British institution.
THE PROMS TODAY
The Last Night of the Proms
This is the highlight of every Proms season.
It is a joyful, perhaps eccentric, very "British" event.
It is also incredibly popular, and tickets for the Last Night are invariably the first to be sold out when tickets go on sale in mid May.
The Last Night concert begins with music representing each of the main themes for the season.
The Prommers will come wearing unusual clothing festooned with Union Jacks and most of them are carrying Union Jack flags.
But they are really here for the patriotic finale: "Land of Hope and Glory" (or Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 1), the Fantasia of British Sea Songs (including the very popular "Rule Britannia), and finally "Auld Lang Syne," "Jerusalem" and the National Anthem.
Throughout all of this the Prommers will rousingly sing along, bob up and down in time with the music, wave their flags and join in with whistles and hooters!
It is quite a sight and there is an amazing, rousing atmosphere of celebration.....
All thanks to Robert Newman....
ROBERT PEACOCK GLOAG
(Dates unknown, prominent in the 1870s)
The Scot who introduced the cigarette to Britain
One of the most dashing portraits ever painted of a gentleman enjoying a cigarette:
James Tissot’s depiction of an elegant and adventurous Victorian army officer, Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, which is in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Robert was born in Perth.
He became a paymaster in the army, and was loaned out to Britain's ally, Turkey, during the Crimean war.
Generally, this job was regarded as neither elegant nor adventurous; rather, steady, dull, unimaginative and safe.
Gloag noticed that the Turks smoked sweet-smelling tobacco, hand-rolled up in twists of paper and rammed into a cardboard mouthpiece.
These newfangled 'cigarettes', then unheard of in Britain, were much cheaper than cigars and more convenient than a pipe.
When he returned from the Crimea, Gloag set himself up in business, making his version of the Turkish cigarettes.
He started from a single room in Peckham, and gradually expanded until his 'factory' filled the whole house.
Business was brisk, and he took over more properties until by 1870 his cigarette enterprise filled a row of six houses.
Gloag's cigarettes were made by hand.
They were filled with strong Turkish tobacco and wrapped in yellow tissue paper.
Until the mid 1880s cigarettes were sold in paper-wrapped bundles.
The finished cigarettes were thicker and longer than those sold today.
They were sold with cane mouthpieces under the brand name "Sweet Threes."
Gloag delivered them to his waiting customers in a dog cart, and sold them for five a penny.
The first cigarette store opened for business in London in 1858, and sold Greek and Russian products as well as Gloag's "Sweet Threes."
For more than a decade smoking was regarded as a 'lower class' activity, and it was not until Virginia tobacco was introduced that the habit became universally adopted.
Not that Gloag, the pioneer of the industry, was concerned.
By 1870 he was a rich man,with this established factory in Walworth, the first in England.
( b. unknown, d. 1841)
Exhibitionist, diver, hanged man
Samuel Gilbert Scott was actually an American, born and raised in Philadelphia, who was known as "The American Diver."
He became celebrated for his incredible muscular control, and for being able to hold his breath for long periods of time.
He served in the United States Navy, where he became well known for jumping off the masts of Navy vessels.
Upon leaving the Navy he became a professional stuntman, passing the hat for contributions after his performances.
Scott performed stunts in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and on the St. Lawrence River.
He dived off a ledge just below the Niagara Falls, 593 feet above the water surface.
Soon he decided to pursue his career as a showman in England; he arrived in Deptford, Kent, in 1840, and immediately aroused public interest.
He entertained enormous crowds by risking his life.
After generating publicity before hand by distributing hand-bills, he was watched by thousands of people when he climbed to the top-gallant-mast of a ship, carried out acrobatics, and then dived head first into the water of the docks.
From such a great height, one slip could have resulted in him plummeting to his death on the ship's deck.
Assistants went among the crowds with collecting tins seeking donations.
Not everyone agreed with his activities.
One newspaper wrote with some foresight, "Foolhardy and totally useless display... If Scott intends to make many similar exhibitions, we venture to predict that he will take one leap too much."
Sadly, a forecast which was to come true!
He dived from the 200 - foot topmast of the battleship St. Joseph at Devonport, and then from a 240 - foot cliff in Cornwall into only eight feet of seawater!
[This achievement exceeds the current world record high dive, and is by many considered unlikely]
He jumped from a 140-foot scaffold on Brighton pier.
In one daring performance, during a dive from an American ship at Deptford during which he planned to swing from his neck and feet in the ship's rigging, he slipped and the noose trapped his neck; he turned black in the face and was only saved by flinging his feet upward; a sailor managed to grab his feet and hold on, and Scott survived.
Scott's comment to the crowd after this accident was, "The hemp that is to hang me is not grown yet!"
Scott worked his way up the Thames towards London, performing before crowds of thousands at Gravesend, Purfleet, Blackwall, Customs House, Rotherhithe, and Southwark Bridge.
By this time large sums of money were being offered for even more dangerous stunts, and on 11th January, 1841, Scott "Challenged the World for 100 guineas."
He said he would:
1 Run from the White Lion Pub in Drury Lane to Waterloo Bridge,
2 Jump 40 feet into the river,and
3 Return to the White Lion, all within one hour.
In the middle of his pre-dive display on the bridge, soon after his arrival at the bridge, Scott began swinging from a noose attached to the scaffold.
Once again the noose slipped and tightened around Scott's neck.
As this had also happened in Deptford, the spectators erroneously thought that this was part of Scott's act, and no immediate action was taken.
Eventually, one man in the crowd insisted that Scott be cut down, but it was too late.
According to a contemporary broadsheet, Scott "was immediately taken to Charing Cross Hospital, where every attention was paid to him, but unfortunately without effect, as life was quite extinct."
There were conflicting reports of Scott's marital status.
According to The Times of London, Scott was residing with his wife in Deptford at the time of his death.
His wife usually accompanied him to his performances, but was not present on the occasion of his fatal accident.
On January 15, 1841, Thomas Carlyle wrote about the incident in a letter to his brother Alexander:
"A wretched mortal that was wont to leap from top masts, bridges &c, and dive and do feats of that kind, perished in a shocking manner (as you will see by that Newspaper) here this week.
One of his tricks was to act hanging; the noose slipt; he was found hanged in earnest!
When I think of the mob looking at him, brutal animals, the still more brutal ‘gentlemen’ of the Bridge Committee encouraging such a scene,—few things I have ever heard of seem more detestable."
Scott's death is further mentioned in Alfred Swaine Taylor's Manual of Medical Jurisprudence, 6th American edition (Philadelphia 1866), p. 339:
The death of Scott, the American diver, shows how readily asphyxia may be induced by a slight compression of the throat, even when a person might be supposed to have both the knowledge and the power to save himself...
No attempt was made to save him until it was too late, and he was not brought to a hospital until thirty-three minutes had elapsed.
He was allowed to hang thirteen minutes –– the spectators thinking that the deceased was prolonging the experiment for their gratification!
During his brief career, Scott was headline material.....
(1830 - 1890)
English naturalist and botanical artist
I first learnt about Marianne North when I went into her Gallery at Kew Gardens.
She was born in Hastings, the eldest daughter of a prosperous land-owning family descended from the Hon. Roger North, younger son of Dudley North, 4th Baron North.
Her father was Frederick North, a Norfolk Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace, and Liberal M.P. for Hastings.
Her mother, Janet, was the daughter of Sir John Marjoribanks M.P., 1st Baronet of Lees in the County of Berwick.
I think it is fair to say that her comfortable upbringing and upper middle-class connections made it possible for her to develop her amazing creative ability.
She trained as a vocalist under Charlotte Helen Sainton-Dolby, but her voice failed, and she then devoted herself to painting flowers.
After the death of her mother in 1855, she constantly travelled with her father, who was then member of parliament for Hastings; and on his death in 1869 she decided to pursue her early ambition of painting the flora of distant countries.
She was able to travel extensively and produced some truly beautiful studies of exotic plants.
She began her travels in 1871–1872, going first to Canada, the United States and Jamaica, and spent a year in Brazil, where she did much of her work at a hut in the depths of a forest.
In 1875, after a few months in Tenerife, she began a journey round the world, and for two years painted the flora of California, Japan, Borneo, Java and Ceylon.
She spent the whole of 1878 in India.
On her return to Britain she exhibited a number of her drawings in London.
She offered to give the collection to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and to erect a gallery to house them.
This offer was accepted, and the new buildings, designed by James Fergusson, were begun that year.
Her gallery was opened in 1882.
Whatever you do, dont miss an opportunity to visit the redbrick building, which is crammed with her paintings.
Even the panelled woodwork and doorposts are covered with painted flowers and greenery.
At Charles Darwin's suggestion she went to Australia in 1880, and for a year painted there and in New Zealand.
Marianne died at Alderley in Gloucestershire on 30 August 1890.
The scientific accuracy with which she documented plant life in all parts of the world, before photography became a practical option, gives her work a permanent value.
A number of plant species are named in her honour, including Areca northiana, Crinum northianum, Kniphofia northiana, Nepenthes northiana, and the genus name Northia.
Kew Gardens claims that the North Gallery is "the only permanent solo exhibition by a female artist in Britain."
In 2008 Kew obtained a substantial grant from the National Lottery, which enabled it to mount a major restoration of both the gallery and the paintings inside.
I promise you, a visit is well worthwhile.