6 strange newspaper stories that shocked Victorian Britain
Think of the Victorians as straight-laced and boring? Think again – nothing captured the imagination of 19th-century readers like the strange, macabre and bizarre.
In extracts taken from Strange Victoriana: Tales of the Curious, the Weird and the Uncanny from our Victorian Ancestors, Jan Bondeson highlights six of the most sensationalist, sinister and downright ridiculous Victorian newspaper stories, from fighting ghosts to scantily clad sleepwalkers…
Somnambulists in peril
The Victorians in general, and readers of the weekly newspaper the Illustrated Police News (IPN) in particular, had a fascination with the mobile but unconscious female body. Sleepwalkers, or ‘somnambulists’ as the Victorians called them, were among the favourite subjects for the IPN’s bawdy-minded draughtsmen. Male somnambulists may have been news, but they were never Illustrated Police news, even if they performed a tap-dance on the roof of the House of Lords; the IPN’s somnambulists were all young, female, and scantily clad.
One of the earliest IPN somnambulists was the 17-year-old Clara Dalrymple, from a small village near Glastonbury. She was well known to often go walking in her sleep, but in May 1868, she rose from her bed in her bedroom on the second floor and walked out on a plank that a workman had put between her father’s house and the one opposite. She fell, but her dress caught in a lamp-post and she was saved. Madame Broneau, a French somnambulist, was less fortunate: she fell to her death in Belfast after walking out on the roof.
In 1885, a Kidderminster police constable heard screams from the roof of a house, and he observed a young lady somnambulist, dressed only in her night-shirt, who had got through a window out onto the roof, where she awoke. Her father and the police constable threw her a rope, and she was rescued from her perilous position. Finally, in 1897, somnambulist Miss Charlton took a walk on the parapet of her family’s house in Manchester, with a lighted candle in her hand. Fortunately, she fell only four feet, onto the flat roof of a neighbouring property, and thus survived her ordeal without any permanent harm.
The Kidderminster somnambulist is saved; from the IPN, 8 August 1885. (Illustrated Police News/Jan Bondeson)
The ‘Plumstead Ghost’, 1897
In October 1897, many people saw a ‘ghost’ flitting about near St James’s Church and school, Plumstead. Sensitive little girls had fainted when the white spectre approached them; some were still in bed, said the Daily News, suffering from nervous exhaustion. A timid schoolmaster had been frightened out of his wits when the ‘Plumstead Ghost’ suddenly grabbed hold of him from behind and shouted ‘Boo-hah!’ at the top of its voice. An old couple visiting the churchyard received a similar shock when the ghost hailed them from a tree, making use of the same uncouth outcry.
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When another schoolmaster was taking an evening walk, he heard rustling in the hedges nearby, and a shout of “Boo-hah!” He had brought with him a large Newfoundland dog, which he set on the spectre. Since the master distinctly heard the ghost give a yelp when the dog’s fangs made contact with its buttocks, he became convinced that the Plumstead Ghost was flesh and blood. He spoke to both masters and schoolboys, asking them not to be fearful, but to teach the ghost a hard lesson if they came across it.
The rowdy schoolboys decided to do just that. One evening, after scouts had reported that the ghost was at large, a troop of schoolboys, a hundred strong, stormed the churchyard. Shouting and yahooing, they pelted the ghost with stones, but without scoring any hits on the absconding spectre. Instead, their missiles broke some valuable stained glass. Pursued by the Newfoundland dog, the ghost was seen to disappear into the hedges.
The schoolboys had been so rowdy that the police arrested two of the ringleaders and brought them to Woolwich, but after the masters had explained the extraordinary circumstances of their riot, they were both discharged. The evening after, the Plumstead Ghost was seen in the grounds of Mr JR Jolly. Arrayed in white attire, and wearing some kind of grotesque mask, the spectre was sitting in a tree, shouting its usual “Boo-hah!” to frighten some female domestics. Mr Jolly was not at all amused: he sent for the police and the ghost was arrested. It turned out that the spectre’s white garb had been torn, and his buttocks badly bruised, from his two encounters with the fierce Newfoundland dog. He turned out to be a local engineer. He was placed under restraint in an asylum, and the Plumstead Ghost was laid to rest.
The 'Plumstead Ghost' is pelted by schoolboys; from the IPN, 6 November 1897. (Illustrated Police News/Jan Bondeson)
Andrian, the ‘Dog-Faced Man’, 1874
In 1874, the London newspapers announced that two of the greatest human curiosities of the present age had arrived at the Metropolitan Music Hall in Edgware Road: Andrian the Russian ‘Dog-faced Man’ and his son, Fedor. A reporter and a draughtsman from the IPN were present to provide a feature about them. The 55-year-old Andrian was a quiet, morose individual, who spoke only Russian. He was of medium height, strongly built, and dressed in not very clean-looking Russian garments. His eyes were a curious yellow, and his skin an unhealthy grey. Andrian reportedly resembled a man half changed into an animal, a spectacle destined to strike horror into Victorian people; his face was entirely covered with hair, like that of a Skye terrier.
A doctor was impressed to see Andrian drink a pint of undiluted vodka with relish, as he carved his beefsteak at the exhibition. The showman said that, ever since he had first put Andrian on show before the curious in St. Petersburg, Paris and Berlin the year before, he had vowed to return to his native village as soon as his tour of the European capitals was over, and to spend all the money he had earned entirely on strong drink. According to another, slightly more prepossessing version, Andrian was a devout member of the Russo-Greek Church. Since others in that faith had told him that he must surely have been cursed by the devil, poor Andrian reportedly spent all his money on the purchase of prayers from a devout community of monks near Kostroma, “hoping one day to be able to introduce his frightful countenance in the court of heaven”, as the exhibition pamphlet flippantly expressed it.
Andrian and Fedor remained in London until early April 1874, and then spent ten days in Liverpool. According to the Liverpool Mercury, the jolly young Fedor pointed at the bald head of a doctor in the audience, and suggested that it would have been an improvement if some of the hair on his own face could have been transferred to the savant’s bald pate. Andrian died later in 1874, probably from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by his excessive drinking of spirits. Fedor later enjoyed a distinguished career in the American sideshow, under the name of Jo-Jo the ‘Dog-faced Boy’, touring the world with Barnum & Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ until his death, from pneumonia, in 1912.
Andrian the ‘Dog-faced Man’ and his son: an original drawing from the IPN, 7 February 1874. (Illustrated Police News/Jan Bondeson)
A Welsh hermit defended by rats, 1879
In January 1879, an old man named Joseph Mason was prosecuted for failing to support his wife, and leaving her chargeable to the Aberystwyth union workhouse. It turned out that he had deserted her and become a hermit up in the mountains, miles above the lead mines of Goginan. After the workhouse had appealed to the Llanbadarn Fawr petty sessions, an officer named Jones was sent out to track down the 70-year-old Mason, described as a former shoemaker. At Goginan, the mountain men directed Jones toward Mason’s abode, far up beyond the old mines and the village. After a good deal of searching, he finally found the hermitage, which was in the most miserable condition. Although the locals had warned Jones not to approach the angry, unpredictable hermit, he bravely opened the door. Looking around the gloomy, unlit interior, he could see a heap of turf on the floor of this wretched dwelling, and also some rags that served Mason as a bed. In a corner, he could only just make out the sinister-looking, hunched old hermit glaring at him.
But there was something else – an army of large rats scurrying about. Jones stamped his foot to scare the rodents away, but instead they attacked him, leaping up and biting at his trousers. Having received the shock of his life from the furious rodents, Jones was put to headlong fright. According to the Welsh mountain men, the old hermit had “tamed and trained his strange companions during his sojourn in the mountains, and encouraged them into his house.” Since Joseph Mason was on the verge of starvation himself, the charge against him was dismissed. It does not seem to have occurred to any person that perhaps he was in need of some help himself, sitting alone in his wretched hermitage above Goginan, with only his rats for company.
Joseph Mason is defended by his army of rats; from the IPN, 11 January 1879. (Illustrated Police News/Jan Bondeson)
The ‘Fighting Ghost of Tondu’, 1904
In 1904, the Welsh village of Tondu acquired a sinister inhabitant. For some time, there had been talk of the disused colliery at Ynisawdre being haunted. On an early September morning, some workmen saw a tall spectre, shrouded in white, in the neighbourhood of Felinfach. When the ‘ghost’ glided towards them with a drawn-out “Booh!”, its great black sockets that took the place of eyes fixed straight ahead, all twelve sturdy Welsh miners took to their heels. When they finally dared to look back, the ghost had disappeared.
Not long after, another Welshman was taking a midnight walk down the lonely, narrow road adjoining the deserted buildings and coke ovens of the abandoned Ynisawdre colliery. At the far end of a tunnel he was astonished to see a tall, cadaverous figure waiting for him. The head resembled a skull covered with wrinkled parchment; the eyes were hollow sockets, with a cavernous glow. Suddenly, the ghost ran up to the terrified Welshman, its long arms outstretched. It grasped him with a hearty goodwill, with such a vice-like grip that he could hardly breathe. When he tried to grapple with this singular ghost, his hands met just thin air. Having toppled its opponent over, the ‘Fighting Ghost of Tondu’ glided off with a hollow laugh. “A Ghostly Reign of Terror in Glamorganshire”, exclaimed the headline of the South Wales Echo.
Village ghosts were not unknown in this part of Wales, but they used to be timid and unadventurous, behaving with becoming decorum and keeping a safe distance to human beings. Although this novel spectre was draped in white, the proper attire for any self-respecting ghost, and made use of the equally orthodox outcry “Booh!”, it seemed much more combative, putting twelve strong men to flight, and then successfully wrestling another. A servant girl had recently seen the Fighting Ghost stalking the ruins of the abandoned colliery at Ynisawdre, uttering dismal groans and waving its arms about. The women and children of Tondu were kept indoors after nightfall, and bands of stalwart men, armed with bludgeons and pitchforks, patrolled the country roads to lay the Fighting Ghost.
It would appear as if the short career of the Fighting Ghost of Tondu ended in late September 1904, after it had been immortalized in the IPN and other publications. Its likely origin is the same as other ‘suburban’ or ‘village’ spectres (ignoring the sad fate of the Hammersmith Ghost of 1814, who was shot dead by an armed ghost-hunter): some prankster amused himself through dressing up as a ghost and frightening timid and superstitious people in the neighbourhood. Although the annals of the IPN provide several instances of ‘suburban ghosts’ being caught, beaten up, or mauled by fierce dogs, the Fighting Ghost of Tondu seems to have been spared such indignities; there is no mention of its activities after September 1904.
The Fighting Ghost of Tondu on the charge; from the IPN, 17 September 1904. (Illustrated Police News/Jan Bondeson)
Dick Schick, the ‘female errand-boy’, 1886
In January 1886, a cheeky-looking young lad who gave his name as Dick Schick was employed as an errand-boy by Messrs Goodman & Davis, the Oxford Street tailors. Dick said that he was 15 years old, and that since his mother’s work as a furrier could not support the family, he decided to get a job himself. Dick seemed an honest and upright young lad, and although he had a fondness for drinking and smoking at various pubs, his partying habits did not differ much from those of other young London errand-boys. But worryingly, various garments started disappearing from the tailor’s shop. Another boy was dismissed on suspicion, but the thefts continued. One day, Mr Davis saw that the dapper-looking Dick Schick was wearing a pair of trousers and a waistcoat made from his own stolen material.
After being fired by Goodman & Davis in June 1886, Dick quickly secured another job as an errand-boy, this time for the respectable glover Frederick Noble Jones, of Burlington Arcade. When gloves and other garments started disappearing, Dick became a suspect. This time, the cunning Dick wrote an anonymous note blaming another boy, but after this individual had been dismissed, the thieving continued. One day in October, Mr Jones got the idea to compare the anonymous letter with some of Dick’s handwriting; they were an excellent match. The police raided the Schick lodgings and found some of the missing garments, along with 40 pawn tickets for other items of clothing. This was not the only noteworthy discovery of the day, however; when examined by a doctor, ‘Dick’ turned out to be a woman. The 20-year-old Miss Lois Schick had successfully masqueraded as a 15-year-old London errand-boy for nearly a year.
There was a good deal of writing about the ‘female errand-boy’ in the London newspapers. Motivated by a mixture of sensationalism and vague proto-feminist sentiments, the rabble-rousing editor WT Stead tried to put a spin on the ‘Dick Schick’ case: was it not a shame that young women were so discriminated against, and had young Lois Schick not been forced by poverty to don male attire? Some other newspapers followed suit, calling young Lois a brave lass, who had just wanted to get a job and support her family. In an interview, Mrs Schick praised her daughter for helping to save her younger siblings from starvation. There was even a Schick Relief Fund, organized by the solicitor Bernard Abrahams; in its first week, it collected £10.
When Lois Schick was charged with theft at the Marlborough-street police court on October 13 1886, she seemed quite undeterred by having to wear her male attire in court. The momentum was clearly against her, however: in relentless testimony, her career of dishonesty was exposed. In particular, it was considered ‘not cricket’ that this artful young woman had twice successfully framed other errand-boys for the thefts, causing them to be dismissed from their jobs. An uncharitable clergyman pointed out that the Schick family had been supported by the parish for some time, that Lois’ younger sister Mary had found employment without resorting to cross-dressing, and that Lois had actually posed as ‘a nephew’ for four years or more. At the Middlesex Sessions, Lois Schick was sentenced to eight months in prison with hard labour, for stealing articles to the value of £75.
Lois Schick and other players in the case; from the IPN, 30 October 1886. (Illustrated Police News/Jan Bondeson)
These extracts are taken from Strange Victoriana: Tales of the Curious, the Weird and the Uncanny from our Victorian Ancestors by Jan Bondeson (Amberley, 2016).