Crossing the cultural chasm
Victorian Bournemouth (143) surveys articles published in the third quarter, covering a range of subjects. Most attention, however, falls on considerations about a servant suing her former employer for libel. This event perhaps illustrates the impact of changes in English society that occurred during the Victorian period. The other articles show the extent to which Bournemouth now formed part of the nation’s cultural network.
Victorian Bournemouth (143): the missing £5 note
‘The missing £5 note‘ covered a libel case a servant brought against her former employer, a judge’s wife. Frequent attention by the press makes a partial reconstruction of events possible. Lydia Crouchman, a parlourmaid, let go by her employer, found herself accused by the same for stealing a £5 note. The former employer accused her before witnesses in her new lodgings. Also, she telegraphed Lydia’s new employers in Bournemouth, urging them to retract their job offer because of the alleged theft. Advised by a solicitor’s clerk, Lydia brought libel charges against her former employer. Native to India, member of the expatriate ruling class, Lydia’s employer may have grown up expecting tacit, unquestioning obedience from local people who provided service. Her high-handed treatment of English servants brought her to the courts on two other occasions. Her behaviour suggests that expatriate culture perhaps lagged behind social developments occurring in late Victorian England.
Cracks in the culture
For centuries, English society had stood upon the concept of deference expected of working people by their privileged counterparts. Working people knuckled their foreheads and accepted what they received from their apparent betters. Society believed that moral stature accrued as a natural component of wealth. Political power belonged to privileged people, an ultimate form of deference. Cracks in this structure appeared during the nineteenth century. Economic problems occurring after the Napoleonic Wars caused unrest and violence. The Peterloo Massacre illustrated privileged slippage in social control. Farm workers, paid minimum wages at best, perceived their livelihood threatened altogether by new agricultural machinery. They responded by direct action in the form of rick-burning and machine-breaking, a clear withdrawal of deference. Lydia Crouchman, from a humble background, played a small but significant role in the reorientation of relations between privileged and labouring. She crossed a cultural divide by suing her former employer.
A social myopia sustained by the belief that might awards right appears to have formed part of how Lydia’s employer saw her position. She may have still lived in India during the fiery and bloody events which occurred there in the late 1850s. Even if not, she will have known about how those expected to deliver deference responded when they perceived a line crossed. They appear not to have caused her to recalibrate her attitude towards those serving her. Perhaps she misunderstood or ignored the new currents within the English social system. Improvements in education, for example, meant that Lydia Crouchman not only could read the jobs advertising columns in a newspaper but could engage in correspondence with a possible employer. Furthermore, she could read the telegram sent by her former employer as well as discerning its possible legal advantage to her. This case, therefore, illustrates social revolution.
A question on this story about the missing £5 note concerns the reason Lydia Crouchman’s former employer telegraphed her possible next one. This couple, residing for a while in Bournemouth, could not have helped her recover the money. No known connection or kinship existed between the parties. Nevertheless, she pursued a vengeful path, intent on destroying Lydia’s economic equity. Although dismissed, Lydia had not heard complaint other than the job of parlour maid did not suit her. Thus, she would have departed at least on neutral terms. Much of a servant’s economic equity resided in having letters of recommendation from previous employers. The telegram, thus, served as a refusal to provide this. It worked, for Lydia returned to London from Bournemouth without a job. Her employer therefore not only attacked her name but undermined future employment opportunities. Her method of so doing, however, exposed a legal opening.
The newspapers contained hazy details about Lydia’s accommodation after her dismissal. At one point, however, she lodged with a couple of whom the husband worked in a solicitor’s office. This man appears to have had enough legal knowledge to see that the telegram provided proof of libel. Perhaps a commercial incentive existed in spotting a case for his employer. That notwithstanding, he, perhaps his wife, and the solicitor would have had to persuade Lydia of the possibility lying before them. Furthermore, Lydia, of humble origins, brought up to show deference, needed courage to use the law against somebody seen by society as ‘better’ than her. She may have felt that she had a limited future in that employers might smell smoke even if no evidence of fire existed. Nevertheless, her suit illustrates the changes occurring in English society about which those living in India perhaps had little knowledge or interest.
Victorian Bournemouth (143): part of the national circuit
The hobby of Sir Percy Shelley, residing in Boscombe, appears to have added momentum to Bournemouth’s appetite for theatrical entertainment. He liked to produce plays for the enjoyment of his friends, using professionals having experience of the London stage. This encouraged the development of a local amateur dramatics group. They would, as did Shelley, produce plays current on the national circuit. Although, theatrical and orchestral entertainers had come to Bournemouth for some time, during the 1870s the level perhaps increased. Professionals saw revenue opportunities at two levels. Popular music-hall acts could entertain the labourers, while privileged visitors and residents offered an audience for other fare. Thus, Bournemouth, whose early selling point had consisted of its physical isolation from the rest of the country, now saw opportunities in becoming part of a national circuit. Improvements in transport, not least the railway, made access easy for visitors and visiting theatrical entertainers.
Bournemouth also became part of a different national circuit at this time. It became a worthwhile stop on the journeys of itinerant criminals. They applied different avenues to crime. Early on, some adventurers had seen opportunities offered by the mobile, glamorous group of spa-visitors. During the 1870s, it attracted female confidence tricksters, by whose description appear to have stepped from a novel written by Dickens or Trollope. Such ladies, afloat on finery and false social credentials, saw gullible retailers as their prey, taking delivery of goods ordered but absconding without payment. Long firm criminals provided a male variant of this behaviour. They would order goods through the mail, taking delivery via the rail network, but also omitting payment. A member of such a gang, arrested whilst posing as a grocer in Springbourne, illustrates how Bournemouth now lay within the reach of criminals who operated on a sophisticated and national scale.
Victorian Bournemouth (143) has looked at the wider social or economic implications behind several articles already posted. Those on criminal activity illustrated how Bournemouth had progressed from a tiny holiday resort to a town whose wealth attracted from those operating at national levels. The resort connected to the grid. Although tangential to Bournemouth, the articles about Lydia Crouchman highlighted a reduced gap between social groups.