The end of the year

I spent the past year reading news from 1861—every week throughout 2011, I read the Sunday papers that had been published on that day one hundred and fifty years previously.

I’ve always enjoyed browsing old papers and stumbling across weird and horrifying stories that caused a brief sensation the day they were printed but were entirely forgotten by the next day, and I thought it might be worth taking a rather more structured approach, to see if anything interesting emerged. I thought—correctly—that setting up a blog to which I would post a few of the more lurid and flavoursome stories each week would lend discipline to the enterprise and keep it going if my enthusiasm should flag at any point. I decided not to comment on or edit the stories, as I had far too much other work to do, and in any case, one of the main pleasures of reading the papers is in their strange Victorian turns of phrase and melodramatic language.

After fifty-two posts, I’ve reached the end of the year and of the project. The American civil war started, the British Empire almost went to war with the United States and Prince Albert died at the age of forty-two, but I skipped most of those reports. Far more fascinating were the stories of thefts, muggings, murders, industrial accidents, lunatics and—the leitmotif of the year—poor young ladies being burned alive when their enormous crinolines caught fire.

The number of crinoline tragedies was quite shocking—as many as two or three a week during the colder months—and some of the stories were really quite awful to read, with women running screaming through their houses and into the streets, entirely engulfed in flames and suffering a lingering death over the subsequent days as a result of their appalling burns. What a nightmarish way to go.

I included the most noteworthy ones in the blog, but there were dozens more. I’ve pasted all the crinoline stories into a single post here but it’s probably best not to read them all at once.

The main lesson I picked up from the project—which might not come as a surprise—was that 1861 was a truly miserable, brutal and unforgiving year in which to be alive. Anyone who believes that society is breaking down in the 21st century or that our spirit is being stifled by the welfare state or health and safety legislation should spend a year reading Victorian papers, with their murdered babies abandoned in gutters, young men crushed by unsafe factory machinery, servant girls starved to death in wealthy houses and all the rest of the commonplace cruelty, and reflect on how far we’ve come in a relatively short time.

God save the Queen!

8 thoughts on “The end of the year

  1. All of this has been fascinating, terrifying, and interesting to read. Thanks for putting this together and sharing it with us. This last post is my favourite. What will you do now?

    • Thanks very much. I think I’ll take a break from the Victorians and concentrate fully on mid-century Pennsylvanians until I get Small Town Noir out of the way…

  2. A suitable summary, I think. It’s true that, while ranting about Nick Clegg or any other difficulties that spring to mind today, we forget the great things of the past century and more all too easily. I dunno – food preservatives and stuff.
    Enjoy your next things.
    Robert Arnott.

  3. I have been searching for information about this disaster. I am doing our family genealogy and my search has taken me to this area and the McIver family. My great grand mother was a McIver. I would like to find out if the boy who was saved is one of my ancestors. Do you know if there is a list of those who died on that day?
    We will be coming to Edinburgh in May and want to find all we can before we get there. We do plan to visit the Scotspeople registry to do more searching in hopes of finding more information on the family.

    Thank you for any help!

    • Hi Joanne — I’d love to help, but I’m not sure what disaster you’re talking about. If you give me some more information, I’ll do what I can…

      • Hi, Diarmid, in my haste to send off the email I forgot to bookmark or save it! I think your post was from back in 2004:-) I have finally realized that what I have been finding online in forums and blogs are many years old and I doubt the people even have the sites anymore:-)

        This was the disaster:

        I realize that the details of who was in the collapse might be hard to find. Newspapers might not have listed the people but they must be somewhere, the question is where to look. I think to find out if this boy is one of our ancestors we will need to find out who in this family died that day.

        Thank you for your reply and for any help you can give, Joanne

  4. I would like to cite several of the pieces you have compiled on the crinoline fires in a book I am completing about the lives of Henry and Fanny Longfellow. Could you advise the newspapers where these articles appeared? Will happily credit the work you did on this blog. But would need to have the newspapers where the articles appeared, in addition to the dates of appearance. Nicely done.

    • Hi. I don’t have the citations any more, but they’re easy to find. If you let me know which ones you’d like to use, I’m happy to find them again in the newspaper archive site I use. If you want citations for them all, that will take a bit of time, but, again, I’m glad to help.

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