A Victorian Bill Bryson: Elizur Wright’s letters from Great Britain

In 1844, the Connecticut businessman Elizur Wright penned a series of letters describing a six-month visit he made to Britain. The result, writes Richard Sugg, is a remarkable, unvarnished outsider's account of the world's first industrial nation in all its grime and glory...

The unemployed scramble for soup tickets in an engraving from 'The Illustrated London News'. Elizur Wright observed the plight of the poor with a horrified fascination. (Photo by Massachusetts Historical Society/ Bridgeman)

Professor Elizur Wright of Connecticut is one of the most remarkable Americans of whom you have probably never heard. Born in 1804 into a fiercely pious family, Wright came close to studying for the priesthood, yet spent his final years, up until 1885, as an atheist, campaigning against the puritanical obscenity laws of the 1870s. In between, he taught mathematics, risked his personal safety fighting for the abolition of slavery, reformed American life insurance, and took a vigorous interest in social and political problems over in Great Britain. At the same time, the polymathic Wright had a hungry eye for all the details of social life, landscape, architecture and industry. Anyone who met him for just a few minutes probably remembered Wright all their life.

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Accordingly, a wealth of vibrant living colour bursts from the letters he wrote from Britain between April and September 1844. Reading them, you would never guess that the trip was nominally a personal business venture, designed to boost his family fortunes. Nor would you guess the hardship Wright suffered from his family’s disability and sickness, with his wife and thirteen of his children dying before he did. To modern readers, Wright’s lifelong hatred of alcohol is perhaps his most alienating quality. Nevertheless, the almost superhuman energy with which he walks, tours and campaigns across Britain stands as a powerful vindication of a teetotal lifestyle.

Veteran cars – a 1898 Benz and an early Panhard – outside Glover Brothers Cycle Makers, c1900. (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Elizur Wright on… the poor

Wright was frequently appalled by the poverty he saw and heard of during his stay. ‘Truly the race, as a mass, is far and painfully below what a nursling of republicanism … would expect to find it. There is ignorance, and coarse brutality, and sullen hopelessness, and haggard wretchedness, far beyond what there ought to be in the midst of such beauties and blessings.’ Watching people take supper and beer outside the London alehouses, he beheld ‘a sort of piggish intoxication … in some’ and ‘a marvellous degree of stupidity in all. Their faces seemed coarsely cut gravestones of mind’. Walking along Oxford Street late one night, Wright was implored by a shabby little girl, who told of her mother lying hungry at home with typhus fever. Following her to Tottenham Court Road, he watched her ‘nimbly tripping on her devious way, sometimes through rubbish and ruins, and sometimes through narrow, sepulchral archways, swarming with a sort of buried-alive population, some dozing in their doorways, some in little brawling, contentious groups about low ale-houses, and some making fires of lath to boil their suppers, until she ‘at last went up a filthy alley, about three feet wide, and entered at the third door’. Shrewdly noticing potatoes in the room, Wright lectured the supposedly bedridden woman for training her child to lie, but presently went off with the girl to buy them bread.

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Meanwhile, having heard of the British poor as ‘the great unwashed’, Wright was astonished, just after 5am one Sunday morning, to find perhaps 3,000 men and boys bathing (many naked) in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. ‘Such a scene! … The people are constantly coming and going, and by 8 o’clock I have no doubt ten thousand had come and gone away refreshed. They seemed to be altogether labouring people … All behaved, so far as I saw, with the greatest decorum … Clothes are laid down and left with the utmost safety.’ This working class solidarity may have been strengthened by the fact that, after 8am, the great unwashed could be ordered out of the water by the police, lest their nakedness or poverty offend the gentry and nobility, strolling or riding in carriages along the bank.

Elizur Wright on… the rich

Wright would have been appalled and astonished to find that the kind of inequality he saw in Victorian London is now more typical of Donald Trump’s America. In the English capital in 1844, he noticed that ‘ladies all wear silks of the richest description … and the dresses of all respectable ladies are cut so long as to sweep the pavement, which is not remarkably well swept otherwise’. Perhaps more strikingly, the servants of the rich ‘possess great power and authority and considerable impudence … you will see the servants of a particular lord or duke in bright scarlet plush breeches, snow-white stockings, white waistcoat and sky-blue coat – the collar adorned with something like coach lace, or possibly with gold lace, and a broad band of gold lace around the hat.’ Wright imagined these servants feeding off their masters, and learning their darker secrets in order to blackmail them. Overall, he certainly did not envy the Victorian elite. Describing a ball given at Apsley House by the Duke of Wellington, he pictured ‘900 of the highest nobility’ gathering to ‘look at each other’s diamonds, dance the polka’ and ‘sip headaches or guzzle the gout, in the shape of champagne’, concluding that ‘they are truly to be pitied’.

At Eton, ‘a little town some twenty miles above London’, Wright was impressed by the famous school, ‘the grand aristocratic nursery of the nation’, with ‘buildings of great extent and magnificence, and pleasure grounds … of indescribable beauty’. And he was still more struck by the strange three-yearly custom in which royalty and nobility assembled one morning, to be accosted by Etonians, ‘dressed in silk hose and doublets, with drawn swords, demanding in the style of highwaymen, “Salt! Salt!”’. ‘Salt’ was in fact money, and the total takings of £1300 were ‘all given to the captain or head boy’, half of which ‘was invested for his support through the University.’

Meeting the elderly Wordsworth at Rydal Mount in the Lakes, Wright argued firmly against the poet’s belief that America, like Britain, should have ‘a class of gentlemen … born to such large property that they could devote themselves entirely to literary pursuits, and be above sordid interests’. ‘The longer I stay here’ (he wrote on 17 August) ‘the more this class of independent hereditary gentlemen seems to me like a perpetual devouring curse of locusts, the beautiful glitter of whose wings, and the merry hum of whose self satisfied song, by no means repays the faint and weary working millions for the toil it costs to support them.’

A London slum family stood in a street with all their possessions following eviction, c1901. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Elizur Wright on… industry and architecture

‘London needs to wash itself’. When Wright asserted this in June, he was referring not just to the people, but to ‘the pitchy smoke … going up from its myriads of chimneys’ and ‘for ever sifting down little feathery carbonaceous particles’. Visiting St Paul’s, he lamented that you could not ‘see this wonder without having your nose blacked by the soot of its walls’. And yet, horrified as he was by pollution and inequality, Wright was clearly stunned by the sheer scale and power of the world’s greatest capital. ‘This is a country of the most astonishing wealth and strength’, he writes in May. ‘Going from Boston to London is like taking a trip of 1,000 years by railroad down the valley of time. London is, perhaps, what Boston will be just 1000 years hence – that is, in AD 2844 – worth seeing, is it not?’ (The reality, perhaps, was closer to New York, 100 years later.) Touring the docks of the Thames, he marvelled at a tobacco warehouse of four or five acres, and a cellar boasting 37,000 hogsheads of rum.

Despite his loathing of alcohol, grudging admiration creeps through when Wright asks: ‘what is that dark murky building, towering far above the sea of brick and mortar, with chimneys like church steeples?’ For this was one of many of ‘the cathedral breweries, consecrated to the gospel of brutality’. Passing by Newgate prison, he is confronted by London’s older and official cathedral. ‘Turning to the right, the mighty work of Sir Christopher Wren bursts upon us through a narrow opening in the swamp of old sooty edifices’. Walking on to ascend the monument to the Great Fire of London, he gazes down at the church of St Dunstan’s in the East. ‘What airy festoonery of cut stone. A perfect frolic of art! The scene is quite indescribable. What things under this sea of red tiles now beneath your feet. Here is the world’s throat – the jugular of its wealth.’

When he is spat out of this throat by train, touring Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, Wright is no less awed by ‘the station of the Eastern Counties Railway’ at Liverpool Street, ‘a massive and magnificent façade, of four lofty stories of stone.’

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A c1750 watercolour shows workers "mixing the powder" at Woolwich Arsenal. "The institutions that made up the 18th-century British 'state' existed entirely to provide the resources for war," argues Priya Satia. (Photo by Bridgeman Art Library)

Elizur Wright on… politics

In this respect especially, Wright entered England with both timing and style. In February 1844 Daniel O’Connell, the great champion of Irish Catholic Emancipation, had been convicted on a trumped up charge of ‘conspiracy’, but was yet to be sentenced (his prison term later being quashed by the British House of Lords). Wright’s first question on English soil concerned O’Connell’s then unknown fate. And soon afterwards, at a packed and stifling meeting in St Mary’s Hall, Coventry, his assertion that he had come 3,000 miles to see O’Connell caused a determined Irishman to force them through the crowd until Wright was on the stage itself. ‘The convicted conspirator at length rose, a kind, genial looking, gigantic old man. Surely he was born to agitate. His smile is magically captivating, his derision annihilating, his frown terrific … I could not but love as well as admire the man … To overthrow slavery would be a mere frolic for him. Where the people are the rulers, he must carry any good cause.’

Throughout his stay Wright denounced the injustice of the Corn Laws which kept bread prices high, and the taxes on beer and tobacco, memorably asserting that ‘England may be said to live under a trinity of evil: kingcraft, beercraft, priestcraft’. And it was abundantly clear to him that further electoral reform was needed. ‘The kingdom has six million of men over 21, and yet there are about 800,000 actual voters! Five million 200,000 persons are unrepresented!’

In late June he stayed at Playford Hall in Suffolk with the veteran anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson, ‘the patriarch of our cause’, a man who ‘was at work for the slave before you and I were born’. Although physically infirm at 84, Clarkson’s ‘mind is bright, and he maintains a lively interest in everything pertaining to slavery, and expressed himself with great energy and animation’.

Elizur Wright on… social history

The moment when Wright describes an old lady almost run down by his stagecoach as she gathers manure in a Colchester street typifies his knack of catching vivid concrete detail. Walking a near-deserted Regent’s Street around 5am on Sunday morning, he sees ‘a man riding on a she-ass tethered to four others’, taking ‘the animals to his customers to be milked’. Looking up at the gargoyles of Oxford colleges, he notices that ‘the stone … is not proof against the weather, and the similitudes of kings and bishops … lions, monkeys, griffins and nameless monsters, are little better than hot gingerbread for Time, who gnaws off the richest friezes and parapets without much hesitation or compunction’.

Back in London, he offers grim visions of death, both human and animal. The overcrowded burial plots of the capital’s churches are not only disturbed regularly, but also plundered for valuables, or for anatomical research. Among other secrets of the necropolis, Wright hears of a gravedigger, working seven or eight feet below the surface, when ‘suddenly the headless corpse of a woman fell upon him, its clammy arms throwing themselves about his neck’. A former sexton, it transpired, ‘had disinterred this woman, stolen her coffin and her head and sold them, and then covered up the trunk in its shroud at a slight depth.’

And then there is the appetite of the living for meat. Estimating that, at ‘Smithfield on Monday morning’ there are ‘not less than three acres of solid, compact sheep’, Wright adds that, ‘by Tuesday morning they will be hanging in thousands of butchers’ shops … skinned nicely all except their heads, which are left on with their eyes open and the blood trickling from their noses’. Come the following Monday morning, ‘London has made an end of all this – has swallowed its mutton chops and licked its wolf chops, and is ready for another three acres of sheep’. Down at the bottom of the meat trade, he sees men hawking skewered entrails to the cry of ‘C-a-t’s meat!’. ‘A very poor woman lodged in a garret or cellar, will cheerfully spend a farthing or halfpenny a day on her beloved cat’.

Dinner at a Victorian workhouse

Elizur Wright on… landscape

‘Nothing can be more delightful than the soft shaded valleys and the gently swelling hills of this highly cultivated country’ of Suffolk, ‘sprinkled over with quaint Gothic churches, built long, long ago’. At times Wright seems as intoxicated by the British landscape as he is appalled by British society and politics. ‘I pronounce material England a paradise. It is not too large, too hot, nor too cold … It is full, naturally, of all conceivable beauties, of mountain and plain, land and water’. ‘It must’, he imagines, ‘have been inexpressibly beautiful when the druids lived under its primeval oaks.’

And the irrepressibly energetic reformer had certainly seen a great deal in his few weeks’ stay. ‘I have just returned’ (he writes on 17 August) ‘from a tour of Derbyshire, the cliffs of Scarborough, the valley of the Tyne, Dumbarton castle upon its wonderful rock, the vale of Leven, Loch Lomond, Ben Lomond, the Cobbler, Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat’ and Melrose Abbey. In the Lake District he beholds ‘a great flock of mountains which appear to be frolicking for joy … covered with a carpet of green grass, beautified with patches of purple heather, and … specked over with sheep … On all these mountains you see white lines streaking down, like little currents of milk … torrents of water dashing down in a perfect foam, falling perhaps two thousand feet in half a mile’. And ‘to live where Southey did at Keswick, or where Wordsworth does at Rydal, is enough to make any man – even a Dutchman – a poet.’

In his final letter of 3 September, Wright exclaims: ‘After seeing the golden harvests of the rich eastern counties and Yorkshire, the meadows of the Thames … the garden valley of the Tweed … the pikes and fells, and dales and meres of Westmoreland; the springs of Malvern; the valleys of the Severn and the Wye – even taking a nap on the brow of the Wyndecliffe – surely I have a right to say, “Avaunt, all geography; this island is the very spot where the human race ought to develop itself in all its power and glory.”

Richard Sugg is an author whose books include A Century of Supernatural Stories (2015), Fairies: A Dangerous History (Reaction, 2018) and the upcoming The Real Vampires (Amberley, June 2019).

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A version of this article first appeared in the February 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine