Fear in History – what scared us in the past?

In 2012, the academic Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Better Angels of our Nature arguing that in historical terms, violence and murder were in decline. Whereas widespread constant states of fear had been understandable in history – our future would be a lot safer and secure.

What a difference eight years makes! Fear may not yet be banished to the dustbin of history. Crisis after crisis looms – and social media spreads rumour and lies. It seems fear is stronger than ever. History may have the last laugh.

At the moment of writing this, we’re all in Coronavirus lockdown. We tune into the daily news bulletins to hear how many unfortunates have died overnight and how many more are infected.

The Governor of New York state appears in front of TV cameras to plead for emergency assistance. Hospitals and morgues are constructed hastily to accommodate the dying and the dead. Fear is everywhere.

But, as Steven Pinker rightly pointed out, mass fear is nothing new. History is littered with episodes of huge anxiety – where thousands if not millions of people were gripped with terrifying anxiety.

FEAR IN HISTORY: The French Revolution

Yesterday, browsing through some old history books, I came across a month-long episode in French history two hundred years ago when the landed peasantry were suddenly struck by something called The Great Fear. Or La Grand Peur if you prefer the original French.

Mansions and chateaus were attacked by pitchfork wielding landless poor. There were a handful of murders of the wealthy. And all around swirled rumours that the aristocracy were hoarding food supplies and plotting to withdraw what few rights the downtrodden had.

How much of this was true? In reality, the rich were probably no worse than they had been the year, decade or century before. But with an intensified political climate and the neighbouring cities rising up, the rural masses were consumed with a sense that unless they acted, their destruction loomed.

FIND OUT MORE: The London of the Frankenstein Chronicles

FEAR IN HISTORY: The Salem witch trials

A century before the town of Salem in Massachusetts had been the scene of hysterical witch trials. The backdrop was unrest between colonialists and American native tribes – as well as a war between England and France fought on American soil. Into this toxic brew add small town rivalries and Puritan terror of the devil and it wasn’t long before innocent women were being accused of witchcraft.

The Salem episode was depicted by the 1950s American playwright Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible – as a satire of McCarthyite anti-Communist investigations. These were show trials overseen by Senator Joseph McCarthy who accused hundreds of Americans of being secret Communists – ruining their careers and driving some to suicide.

Senator McCarthy in action

At the height of this Cold War paranoia, a movie was released under the initial title: I Married A Communist. It’s a clumsily plotted piece of drivel about a guilt-ridden ex-Communist being blackmailed by his former comrades. Watch it on YouTube – I can’t be bothered to write anymore about it. Except to say, no self-respecting Hollywood director would touch the script so it was directed by British director Robert Stephenson who finally lived that career low down by directing Mary Poppins.

DISCOVER: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

FEAR IN HISTORY: 1970s angst

As a teenager in the late 1970s, I experienced waves of popular, tabloid-fuelled fear. This was a time of economic crisis and rising unemployment. And there was plenty – allegedly – to fear.

Skinheads were taking over the streets. Old people were being routinely mugged. Racist propaganda claimed jobs were being taken by new arrivals to Britain from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. And on top of all this – young people wondered whether the United States and Soviet Union would reduce the planet to a post-nuclear dustball.

And yet – here I am. The great fear of the 1970s proved to be largely illusory…

Dog dung used to make books look good!

Before the advent of synthetic products, some very odd natural materials had to be used for processes we take for granted today. Take curing leather bindings on books. In the good old days, getting a nice brown sheen on the cover of books was achieved by using dog dung.

And that dung had to be supplied by somebody. Well, there were people on hand happy to provide the raw materials!

The people who collected dog dung for books

Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.

Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery.

That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.

READ THIS STORY: The 18th century transgender diplomat who caused a scandal

Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items.

So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production. Canine excrement was essential for quality books.

The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.

Getting dog dung for books was good business

In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.

There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!

A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.

A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.

Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.

Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!

Georgian London

A horrific day trip to Georgian London!

Imagine you have decided to take a day trip to London two hundred years ago. What do do? Well, let me be your guide as we take a horrific day trip to Georgian London!

If you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo – you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time. Could it really have been so bleak and awful. Well, in large part it certainly was.

That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.

These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.

YOUR DAY TRIP TO GEORGIAN LONDON STARTS HERE!

Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!

Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”

You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.

Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.

Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria  – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.

Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.

Observe the diseases killing Londoners:  In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.

Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.