The Social Background of 1877 Watford
As many of those alive at the time were aware, the late 19th century was a period of transition. British society was attempting to assimilate the societal effects of the economic and technological changes that had already occurred in the earlier industrial revolution.
The existing social order was proving to be inadequate especially in a town like Watford which was transitioning from a small country market town to a large industrialised railway conurbation now firmly positioned on the outskirts of London. As the old order decayed, local Reverend Newton Price found that his traditional role as a member of the established clergy had become more difficult. The ancient regime based on deference to inherited status was being challenged and undermined by both an economically powerful rising middle class and a tentatively self-aware working class whose labour was the source of the new wealth. The landed aristocracy’s original means of revenue in agriculture had long been in decline and was now diminishing faster than their social prestige.
All these changes were perfectly demonstrated by the shifting demography of Watford. Entrepreneurial plutocrats were taking on the landholdings of debilitated aristocrats and country squires and aping their style and culture in the estates that surrounded the town. At the same time, into Watford’s proto-urban area of rapidly spreading streets, filled with by-law housing and factory enterprises, came an expanding proletarian population which was made up of the sons and daughters of the Hertfordshire countryside’s once exclusively agricultural workforce.
The land, commerce, and labour: these were the contributory, complementary factors involved in the generation of new wealth in Watford, as in the nation. Yet the uneven distribution of this wealth and the weakening of the old social institutions also brought an increase in the underlying social and class antagonisms. These tensions could remain hidden or be smoothed over while the archaic social order meant that the constituent social classes had little or no genuine social interaction and lived largely ignorant of the circumstances or concerns of the other. However the yawning social gulf, hitherto maintained by iron-clad etiquette and physical geography, was increasingly under strain. The Earls of Essex’s and Clarendon’s refusal to have the hoi polloi of railway passengers gawping at their estates had been an early local symbol of their futile resistance to social change.
The traditional role of the clergy was to act as a mediator in the occasional confrontations between the social classes, mollifying resentments and defusing rebellion on the one hand and mitigating harsh authoritarianism and callous disregard on the other. Christian charity was the proposed common currency in each instance. In the 1870s as an Anglican clergyman serving in the expanding Watford suburb of Oxhey, Newton Price’s role could be a challenging one as the town’s underlying social antagonisms in this era of change were inclined to manifest themselves in novel and unexpected aspects of the town’s social and civic life.
The Newton Price letter
On October 30th 1877 a letter to the editor appeared in The Standard newspaper. It was from the Revd Newton Price, incumbent chaplain of the hamlet of Oxhey. The heading above the letter read, “A Hero”. In this letter, which also featured in a number of other papers in the days ahead, Newton Price recounted the story of Charles Cheshire, a Bushey resident who had died that day under the grimmest of circumstances. Charles Cheshire, Price stated, had been an outstanding athlete, a sprinter “known to the Sporting World” who ran under the name of Fortescue. About a month ago, he went on to say, Cheshire had encountered a mad dog “on a solitary road”. Price described how with great courage and public spiritedness, Cheshire had “endeavoured to hold the brute and arrest him in his mischievous career”.
In late 19th century Britain, rabies was not the unknown disease it is today. A ‘mad dog’ was, as likely as not, to be a rabid dog and it was common knowledge that such a highly infectious and aggressive animal could spread the havoc of incurably horrific disease in the town. Newton Price described a “fearful contest” between man and dog in which spilled “blood lay in the road”. Forestalling a future controversy, he also mentioned the occupants of a passing carriage who “thought themselves unable to help” and who “drove to the next farmhouse for assistance. When help came, the gallant fellow had been overcome and the dog escaped”. The real purpose of Newton Price’s letter became apparent at the end. Charles Cheshire had now subsequently died as a result of the attack and he had left behind him a young widow and three small children, the youngest of these merely a babe in arms. This residual family was now left “helpless and penniless”.
The contemporary social provision for people in Mrs Cheshire’s position was scant indeed. The workhouse was the only statutory recourse. The harsh and minimal regime exercised there was justified on the theologically backed grounds that the poor were feckless and generally the authors of their own condition in some way. That is to say the ‘undeserving poor’ who were resefntfully kept at the community’s begrudged expense. This assumption of blameworthiness was patently not the case with the Cheshire family. To Victorian sensibilities, the circumstances of their plight placed them in the converse position of ‘the deserving poor’. Newton Price’s letter is straining to present Charles Cheshire’s tragedy as a noble and heroic sacrifice. The reason for this was that the family would now depend on the only other contemporary provision for hardship the era would tolerate – charity; - a limited resource for which there was much competition.
After the shock of Charles Cheshire’s death, Newton Price had immediately gone into action, displaying the decisive activity that would make his reputation in the town. No time at all was lost in establishing a fund for Charles’ dependants.
Since his arrival in the area, Newton Price had been attempting to cultivate the notables of the town. At the time of writing his letter he had already co-opted one of the town’s most prominent businessmen, F J Sedgwick the brewery owner, as a treasurer for the putative fund. The letter ended with an appeal for donations to be sent to this treasurer. Newton Price’s campaigning skill was apparent in the large number of newspapers that carried his letter, an epistle which astutely combined sensation with compassionate appeal. (Some papers, it must be said, merely lifted the lurid details from the letter without printing the appeal.).
The Cheshire Fund had been rapidly constituted as a committee “of the local gentry” with Revd W Falconer, the Rector of Bushey, as their Chairman.
Almost immediately, the story of Charles Cheshire’s demise and the circumstances of his infection were being reproduced in newspapers all over the country. At that point in time rabies, or hydrophobia, as the disease in humans was then known, was a hot topic in the press of 1877 where a certain amount of public hysteria was being simultaneously stoked and condemned by journalists.
The Hydrophobia Mystique
Despite its cause being unknown and its occurrence incurable, rabies in the 19th century, even in the worst years, had a very limited economic impact. At most it only claimed animals in their hundreds. In terms of mortality it was not comparable to foot and mouth disease or the new and devastating rinderpest which killed many hundreds of thousands of animals, nevertheless the public response to rabies was unparalleled and by any measure an over-reaction. Even contemporary observers in the midst of it recognised it as a hysteria. Throughout the 19th century, rabies/hydrophobia exercised a peculiar preoccupation over the public imagination in Britain. Almost any outbreak or incident, however limited, was automatically considered newsworthy. Journalists’ reports dwelt pruriently on the gruesome sufferings of human victims and speculated on the moral complicity of stereotypically canine carriers as agents of doom.
Parliament regularly debated measures to combat the disease and a continuous public discourse on the subject veered between repelled horror and morbid fascination. The hysteria at the time was attributed not only to the unpleasantness of the symptoms, but also to the unnervingly long incubation period (usually over a month) and the certainty of death once the disease was confirmed. Moreover the fact that the disease could be inflicted on humans by their otherwise loyal, devoted and much loved pets was also a great source of insidious anxiety for the public.
The human death toll in the worst year – 1877 (the year of Charles Cheshire’s death) – was 79 and this was exceptional (The 57 who died in the runner-up year of 1875 represented only two deaths per million). The average Victorian was in fact ten times more likely to be murdered than catch rabies. This rarity meant that few doctors could recognise it and few vets could identify it. Nobody knew its cause, therefore speculation was rife and quack ‘remedies’ and protections catered more for the hysteria than the disease. The authorities however felt that they should make demonstrative responses to the public concern, but these measures meant that many more dogs were destroyed on the suspicion of madness than could possibly have been infected.
With such a weak understanding and recognition of the disease on the part of the medical authorities and rudimentary public health administrations, the first alert to the public would come from the press in alarmist reports couched in breathless and disturbing prose. There was no knowledge of viruses at this time so, although the infectiousness of rabies was well known, there was also the belief that the ‘origin’ of an outbreak could begin as a ‘self-generated’ illness within a susceptible individual animal.
In a society with a strong religious mind-set that attributed ’purpose’ to the workings of nature, the idea that these affected individual animals were in some way flawed or self-evidently morally reprehensible seemed likely. A habitually aggressive or badly behaved dog was thought to be potentially predisposed to rabies. Dogs being so malleable in their nature were popularly considered to have had their temperament or moral reprehensibility transferred to them from their owners. Thus the social prejudices and class distinctions of the age were transferred to the canine world.
Although the actual cases of rabies were indiscriminate and affected a wide variety of wild and domesticated animals, in the popular imagination the exemplar of hydrophobia was the rabid dog, a mongrel cur whose nature had been brutalised and embittered by a cruel and fecklessly poor owner who had obtained it on a whim and cast it out as a stray when care and responsibility for it had proved too tiresome or costly. In this scenario rabies was thought to be self-generated within the conditioned animal as a sort of manifestation of its corrupted soul. The malevolent pariah now wandered abroad in search of victims with the single purpose of transferring its deadly disease to them.
This kind of moral pathology was characteristic of the times and a parallel can be seen in the contemporary attitude to venereal disease. This was thought of as typically spread by one type of person, the corrupted and corrupting prostitute. Her (the stereotype was female) customers were rarely seen as agents of the disease but often considered as ‘victims’. In 1864 when VD had infected a third of the army personnel and a similarly alarming proportion of the navy, the government introduced an Act for the compulsory medical examinations of prostitutes in port and garrison towns. By contrast, examinations of sailors and soldiers were ruled out as humiliating for the men and distasteful to the medical officers. To the pious Victorian sensibility, blame for disease was of more significance than prevention.
In this moral setting, Charles Cheshire was represented as “A Hero” who attempted to save the town by fighting and subduing the vicious animal in order to prevent it from “spreading its mischief”. The Times report took pains to describe Cheshire as a “respectable young man” and by implication, a victim, in contrast to the assumed disreputable former owner of his attacker. The Times went on to say “Were common people prevented from keeping dogs, many accidents of this kind would be prevented”. In keeping with this righteous dichotomy, the larger scale outbreaks of rabies among the hunting animals of the respectable rich were reported (if reported at all) in a more sympathetic and matter-of-fact way as ‘misfortunes’ and ‘heavy losses’. In these accounts the ‘fine qualities’, breeding and expensiveness of the animals was emphasised such as in the case of the outbreak of rabies that resulted in the total destruction of the foxhounds of the Essex Hunt, said to be “one of the finest and best hunting packs in the whole Kingdom.”
There does however appear to have been a certain amount of uneasiness among the rural hunting elite about the susceptibility of their animals to rabies. “It was after all, the aggressiveness and independence characteristic of the best foxhounds that supposedly inclined them to go mad, and their inbred predilection for chasing other animals over vast tracts of countryside that made them particularly liable to spread the disease.” As if seeking to avoid any suggestion of the reprehensibility otherwise associated with rabies, the news reports of outbreaks among the animals of the gentry express incredulity that such a tragedy could befall such expensive, well cared for, pedigree animals.
In these reports the usual villains, a stray mongrel or a feral cat, were often assumed or said to have been seen nearby. Reports of these outbreaks among the animals of the upper class universally lacked the panic-inducing elements that featured in those of the cities and towns.