What I find fascinating about mooching through old newspapers is not only the sensational crimes and usual misdemeanours that fill the columns of the local papers, but also those mundane snippets that give us every day glimpses of our Victorian ancestors lives.
In some sense, they really weren’t that much different from us. Take The Dorset County Chronicle of 11th September 1884. Just like we do today (well, those of us that still browse the physical pages of print rather than online) your GGG Grandfather Henry might well be sat in his plush, red velvet armchair that late summer’s afternoon, his pince-nez slid down to the tip of his nose as he perused the trials and tribulations of his fellow townsmen.
Would he have nodded in satisfaction when he read that Reuben Newberry of Upwey had a great year when it comes to growing his Dahlias?
Well, of course, he knew old man Reuben was a perfectionist when it came to the floral side of things, after all, he did run Upwey Nurseries alongside his wife Miriam. They often exhibited in local flower shows and came away with most of the prizes. Reuben had been showing some “remarkably fine specimens of these flowers” lately. Those dahlia’s lovingly displayed “being very much admired.”
He was also rather good when it came to cultivating families it seems, managing to germinate ten offspring.
(Only a couple of years later and 73-year-old Reuben hung up his hose and laid down his dibber, an advert appeared advertising his “very desirable and compact nursery and market garden.”
Maybe Granfer Henry’s eyes would next catch sight of a name he knew well…that caused him to sigh heavily…”What’s Wheeler been up to now” he’d muse to himself. “Always trying to get himself noticed, that fellow.”
“FINE ARTS” the headline proclaimed. “Specimens of photographic portraits &c. in every style of the art, take by Mr Wheeler of the Vandyke Studio, are now being shown by him.”
The studio was run by Harry Wheeler, a man with fingers in many profitable pies! One of them being photography. Harry also ran a fine art studio, library and printing press, something that had got him into a spot of bother with the law in 1878. Apparently his press had been churning out “defamatory” leaflets concerning a certain borough magistrate, Joseph Drew, that hit the streets of Weymouth just before municipal elections.
That September day though, the attending reporter waxed lyrical of Harry’s artistic talents. “He may well be proud of the work he has turned out, for we doubt whether it is possible for any photographer, either in London or the provinces to show a better collection.”
Harry and Mary Marie Wheeler and their veritable brood (must be something in the Weymouth waters!) lived along Frederick Place. When Harry passed to the dark room in the heavens (1895) his fingers in pies scheme had obviously worked their magic because he bequeathed to his wife and son, Frank Augustus Wheeler, “dealer in fine arts” the princely sum of £4494 13s 11d.
But of course, Granfer would certainly have approved of the more sedate culture to be found in Weymouth’s theatres. Mr Doryly Carte’s Opera Company were taking to the stage, performing “the fairy opera Iolanthe in the theatre” (though it doesn’t actually say which one, for Weymouth had quite a few in those days.) The article claims that “It will have splendid scene, effects and be most gorgeously dressed.”
But, just maybe, some of the entertainment on offer wasn’t quite to his taste. The text heavy columns relayed a lengthy report on a Swimming Exhibition by Dr Jennings. It was supposed to have taken place on the Wednesday, but as per usual fickle mother Nature soon scuppered those plans.
Brave Dr Jennings though, not one to be deterred, set out again on Thursday, unwilling to disappoint his audience. “Although the weather overhead was fine, the air was exceedingly cold, a “north-easter” blowing and the sea was very ‘loppy’ “.
About 300 folk had forked out their hard earned sixpenny pier toll to watch this intrepid swimmer take his leave of Weymouth’s pier. Of course, as human nature dictates, there were always those few, “about 100 more were in boats and therefore viewed this exhibition for nothing.”
Ever the showman, Dr Jennings (“who is a well developed man”) made his appearance dressed in an old suit. He then stepped up onto the specially prepared stage and made a great performance of pulling on a pair of sturdy boots and lacing them up tightly, then donned a heavy overcoat, taking care to button it up right to his chin. Jennings clambered down into a waiting boat and to the gasp of his audience, promptly tipped over the side and disappeared under the waves.
Of course, this was all part of his display…for a few minutes later he bobbed up to the surface like a fisherman’s cork. Whilst fighting the tide and heavy swell, Jennings proceeded to unbutton and remove his heavily sodden overcoat, followed by a jacket and then his waist coat. As each layer was discarded a great roar went up from the expectant crowd. His underwater striptease show continued with the untying and removal of his boots whilst being tossed around on the choppy surface. Then off came his trousers and shirt until at last he was down to his proper swimming attire.
He then proceeded to display how easy it was for man to float on seawater by “reclining in a variety of postures on the troubled waves.” Not content with that, a chair was thrown to him, upon which he sat as if it was in deed on “terra firma”.
All in all a jolly spiffing display.
Not that Granfer Henry would have been overly impressed with Jennings japes, what he enjoyed most of all was perusing the columns of the naughtier Weymouth residents misdeeds. Henry he could tut and humph with the best them. Not much tittle tattle in todays paper he mused.
Only Granfer’s best friend, old John Vincent, who had been hoodwinked by a pretty maid entering his shop. She asked to look at diamond rings sending John off to retrieve some from the window…and promptly took her leave of the premises, leaving John one sparkler short.
The pretty maid then popped up in the watchmaker and jewellery shop of Henry Talzner in St Thomas Street. Thankfully he was immune to her fresh complexion and fluttering lashes and informed the police she had tried to sell a dodgy ring to him.
Weymouth’s PC Hansford knew his criminals though, he went along to stake out her mothers house in Trinity Road, where he collared her later that night as she returned home. When questioned about the ring he noticed she was trying to remove something from her finger…something rather large and sparkly.
17-year-old Elizabeth White was convicted of theft and sent to prison for 4 months hard labour.
Maybe reading todays news had been all too much for Granfer Henry!
Interested in Weymouth military and naval history? Why not pop on over to my other blog Nothe Fort and Beyond…
Book I Nothe Fort and Beyond is now available in Weymouth Museum and Nothe Fort bookshops or on Amazon;
Looking for Victorian illustrations then check out my IStock folder at Getty Images for 1,000’s of these fantastic images.