It’s not just about the music : The (un)-healthy Victorian

Gathering shells. A1879.135

Gathering shells. A1879.135
Copyright Cambridge University Library

Who uses music resources? Conversations among music librarians reveal that increasing numbers of libraries are getting rid of their music stock citing, among other things, under-use. As early as 2003 a IAML report Access to music highlighted some of the problems of supplying music resources. This is just a personal observation, but over the last 10 years I’ve noticed a growing number of non-musically-literate readers using music resources. Why is this? Researchers in social and military history have long known that popular music can be a great way of unearthing early references, spotting the start of trends, and finding contemporary illustrations of events and changing fashions.

Here at the UL we have a great selection of Victorian popular music, all deposited under the Copyright Act. Most of it is not particularly well written, you’re not going to find a second Mendelssohn here; but what is fascinating about popular music is that it gives a snapshot of the concerns of the day. For example: Victorian attitudes towards health.

You might think that the Victorians were very different from us – in some ways undoubtedly they were, but they also had many of the same preoccupations. The celebrity diet, for example, was a product of the Victorian age.

The Banting Quadrille. A1871.2989

The Banting Quadrille. A1871.2989
Copyright Cambridge University Library

The Banting Quadrille was written in honour of William Banting, a Victorian dieting guru. The term “banting” for dieting stayed in vogue well into the 1930s (Agatha Christie often uses it – it can be found, for example, in a Miss Marple short story – The Tuesday Night Club). Banting’s diet plan was published in 1864, and just 2 years later the quadrille was published. Banting’s plan is still in print, and was a forerunner of the still popular and controversial Atkins diet.

Facts about the life of E. Giovanelli, the dieting prodigy and dedicatee of the quadrille, are few, but what I’ve found in The Times is fascinating. He ran a concert venue, Highbury Barn. As well as music the venue featured a tight-rope act, in which a young woman “the Female Blondin” would cross the rope with her head in a sack(!) and while fire-works were blazing at both ends of the rope. On one occasion this led to a nasty fall, she was lucky not to be killed. Jules Leotard, the inspiration for The daring young man on the flying trapeze, was on the bill shortly afterwards and also fell after a “helpful” member of the audience mentioned the earlier accident. Kind hearted Giovanelli ran a benefit for his injured artiste.

Charley the bicycle pet. A1879.888Copyright Cambridge University Library

Charley the bicycle pet. A1879.888
Copyright Cambridge University Library

The seaside holiday became increasingly popular in Victorian times as part of a healthy lifestyle. This is reflected in the song Lancashire sands by the sea. While men, and later in the period women too, were encouraged to take up sports, it was the invention of the bicycle in the 1860s which led to a Victorian obsession with cycling A great example of this new Victorian sport is the song Charley the bicycle pet. Written by Thomas Gregory, circa 1878, the song is a little ditty about a Victorian “lady’s man.” There’s something very important about this particular publication: the cover contains one of the earliest illustrations of a penny farthing bicycle published in the United Kingdom.  Cycling isn’t the only pastime to be represented in Victorian songs; a plethora of boating songs from the mid-1860’s indicate the popularity of the sport.

Our Freddie died this morning. A1871.6012

Our Freddie died this morning. A1871.6012
Copyright Cambridge University Library

Sadly in spite of the Victorians best attempts at promoting a healthy lifestyle many diseases were endemic. In 1849 a cholera epidemic killed over 14,000 Londoners. Infant mortality remained high until towards the end of the period. Even by 1899 in some of the most impoverished areas of the UK over 50% of children would not live to celebrate their first birthday. Many of the most sentimental songs in our collection focus on that most Victorian of preoccupations: death. Ring the bell softly, there’s crape on the door reflects mourning customs of the period; while Our Freddie died this morning demonstrates the ubiquity of infant mortality in the period.

Victorian songs cover a wide variety of topics from food and fashion, to heroes and villains, war to celebration, but that’s for another post…



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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6 Responses to It’s not just about the music : The (un)-healthy Victorian

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