Cartoon of the Week: Skype in 1879

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Trumpery and Fake News

The surname Trump is a burden that the US President must carry with him, and he must be used to hearing about ‘trumpery’. He will probably discard it as ‘fake news’. Given his track record on understanding history, he will be almost certainly unaware of the long history of both ideas.

Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, identified three senses to trumpery: something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems; falsehood, empty talk; something of no value; trifles. Earlier, and more concisely, the Dictionarium Bratannicum called it “Trash, sorry, pitiful, paultry Stuff.”

Over the centuries it has also been used to refer to weeds, people (especially women of doubtful character), religious matters (especially those that are superstitious in nature), and generally worthless things in a broad sense.

In the 19th century, the word became attached to the burgeoning newspaper industry. In the 1870s, Albert Sorel, the French historian, said that “Our trumpery newspapers are the newspapers that pay.” Later in the century, the editor of the ‘Nation’ in the US wrote that “The journalist’s business was not to make life moral, but to make it interesting; to furnish raw material for preacher and moralist to use” but cautioned – over optimistically – that “the trumpery side of the Press must sooner or later go, for we could not afford to keep it.”

The emergence of newspapers more interested in sensation than facts grew rapidly with the new technologies of the 19th century and it was not long before ‘fake news’ became a focus of attention, as this section of an 1894 Puck cartoon.

SnipImage (0000000C)

Ironically, among the greatest purveyors of this sort of journalism – what was often called ‘Yellow Journalism’ – was Joseph Pulitzer, the owner of the New York World. For more on this read: and

This is yet another example of Mark Twain’s reputed claim that “History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme”.

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“Mr Wilde’s Thrilling Legs”

Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour around the US in 1882 is well known and oft-mentioned and hardly a footnote. It was a considerable commercial success and the stories of him endearing himself to a wide range of audiences including Colorado miners are standard. However, he received a deluge of vitriol and criticism from the press wherever he went, and this has received less attention.


In a piece in the Brooklyn Eagle in January 1882, entitled “Mr Wilde’s Thrilling Legs”, Wilde, ‘estheticism’, the British aristocracy and indeed Britain itself, were ridiculed and reviled in a way that was reasonably typical of the response of newspapers.

Beginning with his appearance, it noted that ‘this intense young’ was well known for ‘a habit of wearing very decollete shirts, and exposing to an extent considered at least unconventional, the snowy whiteness of his chest, but it was not expected that he would abbreviate his nether garments to any extent in order to display the symmetrical beauty of his legs’. His enlarged ‘lappels’, knee breeches, black silk stockings, and silver buckles had the desired effect on the ‘rapturous maidens of both sexes whose eager eyes danced from his legs to his beautiful throat and back again’. This, commented the Eagle, ‘undoubtedly afforded a rich treat, overwhelming their most disordered and extravagant anticipations by his revelations of carnal beauty.’

The reporter was less overwhelmed than the audience either by the orator or the set. Of the latter, he noted that: ‘The walls were of pink, relieved with preposterous Cupids Indulging in impossible feats of agility and marksmanship….From an antique bronze pitcher placed upon an ebony a sunflower of unhealthy appearance rose above a collection of choice ferns and grasses’. He appeared even less impressed by Wilde himself who ‘read in a dull monotone, failing of emphasis, neglectful of his periods and drawling altogether as if he bad been down the road or somewhere else and caught a bad cold’.

The Eagle made much of Wilde as a reflection of the dissolution and decline of those living on the other side of the Atlantic. Convinced that Wilde was a ‘sincere flamboyant imbecile’ rather than the ‘keen witted satirist’ his agents marketed him as, they easily found explanations for him in the behaviour of a British aristocracy whose minds were ‘enfeebled with generations of wantoness and idleness’ and whose ‘worn out, exhausted natures concentrate themselves on the languid adoration of formal beauty’. And these needs for a cult of beauty were, proclaimed the Eagle, met by the ‘Swinburnes, Rossettis, Burne Jones and a pack of people who are never happy unless they are reading erotic verses or looking at the bare arms and legs of professional beauties’. The pleasant vices of Rome, it said, were being revived in Europe.

Wilde was therefore a symptom of this, a charlatan and a boor who ‘has come across the water to scoop in the dollars of credulous and curious Americans’. Noting that the ‘fervidly fervid’ response of the audiences was ‘too too’ and ‘utterly utterly’ silly, the Eagle looked forward to Mr Wilde’s eventual departure, on his well developed calves’, to Australia, hopefully never to return.

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The Opening Ceremony

The Auckland University of Technology celebrated its tenth year as a University in 2010, but is always keen to remind everyone that it has a history stretching back to the late nineteenth century when it was set up as Auckland Technical School. The institution was officially opened on 10th June 1895.

There had in fact been an Auckland Technical School as early as 1888. An advert for such a School in the Auckland Star of March that year, announced classes in Applied Mechanics and the Steam Engine taking place on Wellesley Street. The teacher was a Mr Walter I Robinson. At a prize giving ceremony it was noted that practical education was not inferior to literary education and ‘it was absolutely necessary that our youth should have the opportunity of becoming inventors and discoverers’. By 1894, clearly not having established a workload allocation policy for himself, Mr Robinson was teaching architectural drawing, construction as well as applied mechanics. Having however developed some 21st century style marketing expertise, the new advertisement noted optimistically that “First Class Honours” were available in these subjects. By now Mr Robinson, with remarkable foresight, was suggesting that a School of Design should be established in Auckland.

Mr Robinson has disappeared from the formal history of AUT which officially starts with the opening ceremony in 1895 in a new three storey School in Rutland Street (formerly Foster’s Boot Factory). Reading the Star’s report of the ceremony, the gap of 105 years between the opening of the school and the establishment of the university, doesn’t seem quite so great as you might imagine.

The School was formally opened by the President of the Council, Sir George Maurice O’Rorke (MP for Manukau) in front of a large gathering of were what described as influential citizens (an old fashioned term for ‘stakeholders’).

Sir Maurice O’Rorke, AKA George

Sir Maurice (before he was knighted, he was George) noted that the opening of a Technical School had been discussed for many years, notably with Auckland University College, the Grammar School, as well as the Board of Education. The Board of Education considered that technical education might possibly be a supplement to the ‘scientific teachers and well-stocked laboratories of the University College’. The University College itself thought technical education would be good for those people who wanted to go to night school, ie the working classes. The Grammar School, while claiming to want to assist the cause, ‘entertained a delicacy lest the new School should encroach on the proper functions of academic education’.

The establishment of the School was based on a public subscription (what we would now call sponsorship) and had raised $120 which was supplemented pound for pound by the Government. A humble beginning  commented the Star, contrasting this money with the much bigger amounts spent on technical education overseas.

100 students had enrolled for Freehand Drawing; algebra and geometry; mechanical drawing and machine and building construction; coachbuilding; architectural drawing; wood carving; plumbing; cookery; and dressmaking: in modern parlance engineering, hospitality, design and fashion.

Sir Maurice went on to explain the meaning of technical education. There was, he asserted, no antagonism between technical education and general education. Indeed, he would go one step further and say that if students did not acquire some technical education, their progress in life would be impeded at every turn. Referring to his audience, he noted that ‘they were men who brought their practical knowledge to bear on the subject and lifted the subject out of the hand of theorists and breathed the breath of life into it.’

He did think there could be strong links with the University College with students from the school being able to go to the university to ‘reap the advantages of an academic education that was imparted by gentlemen: the professors of physics, chemistry, electricity, botany, geology, agriculture and astronomy’.

Showing a distinct lack of understanding of branding, mission or strategic development, he concluded that ‘I entertain no hope that the school is going to strike out any new path for itself, or that it was to become a shining light in the firmament of technical education though, as with many after him, he did advise all those connected to the school to look to America, Europe and Australia for inspiration.

A few weeks earlier there had been the first general meeting of the subscribers of the Auckland Technical School Association with the Mayor presiding, in effect AUT’s first Strategic Retreat. After a great deal of time discussing the purposes of the school, a constitution was adopted in what was called a ‘slightly’ amended form to that originally proposed. The amendment was ‘to confine the object of the institution to provide technical education merely and eliminate from the syllabus all those subjects included under the term ‘general education’. A reminder for us all that apparently minor events, slight amendments  – and, particularly, long meetings – can change history.

The late 19th century was, of course, a very different context, However, for those who believe that the changing world is restricted to the 21st century, the 1895 advert for the Technical School appeared next to another advert which noticed the great success of the wondrous new invention, the typewriter, which had caused a ‘revolution’ among business men ‘who are no longer the slaves of the pen’. Sedately reminiscent of the hyperbole around the iPad, the Auckland Star had commented 20 years earlier that: ‘In this age, when practically there are no bounds to the flight of inventive genius…our American cousins have accomplished great things..including the writing machine…a very ingenious apparatus…and a perfect substitute for the pen…meeting the necessity of the age’.

Looking back to that opening ceremony provides an interesting, if sometimes salutary reminder. It reminds us that we are always surrounded by the echoes of our history, not always clear and loud but part of the fabric. It reminds us that we ourselves are mostly the footnotes of the next century. That isn’t a cause for existential angst. It is how history works. Without the millions of footnotes, the heroes (and villains) would get nowhere. And finally the world was changing just as much a century ago, and undoubtedly the century before that. But while there have been huge changes both to the School/University and the society in which it is embedded over the last century, there are always some things which change slowly, if at all.

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Tom and Jerry

To the late 20th century, the term ‘Tom and Jerry’ means two famous cartoon characters (or, for a more select group, the early name for Simon and Garfunkel). The term, however, goes back much further into the regency era. In January 1821, a well-known journalist and sportswriter (sport meaning prize fighting and horse racing) called Pierce Egan wrote a monthly journal under the title: “The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and sprees through the Metropolis.”

Illustrated by George and Robert Cruikshank, it was a tale of generally rakish behaviour that also became an instant success in the theatres of London, running at the Adelphi for two seasons, and being exported to France and the US.  The term ‘Tom and Jerry’ became a euphemism for riotous behaviour and was, from 1830, attached to the avalanche of small beer houses – Tom and Jerry Shops – often set up in people’s houses, that appeared in Britain after the Beer Act of 1830 freed up the market for ale. These were to continue throughout the 19th century.

The term also became attached in the US to a hot eggnog style drink, spiced with brandy and rum, probably some time in the 1830s and purportedly invented by one Jerry Thomas. The drink swept the US for well over a century, most particularly as a Christmas drink, and with ‘Tom and Jerry’ punchbowl and mug sets to drink it in.

The violent and riotous behaviour of a cat and mouse, and the 19th century punchbowls that now turn up in American antique shops, are examples of those curious echoes of history which constantly crop up, but of which we are mostly unaware.

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On this day…December 29th 1871

The recently launched British Newspaper Archive ( makes it very easy to coast through the past, and particularly the nineteenth century, in search of the odd and the unexpected. Much easier to use than its predecessor, more accurate, and – through the subscription service – much more accessible to the individual user, it covers more papers, a longer period, and rapidly gets bigger each week.
It is also temptingly diverting. Choose a day, a place, and a page and see what happens. Friday the 29th December 1871 for example. 140 years ago. The Hull Packet and East Riding Times maybe, and let’s say page 7.
Amidst a wide range of local stories – including the meeting of the Bridlington Chamber of Agriculture, a school prize giving and successful school inspections (‘arithmetic is well taught, but reading, writing and spelling need care’), the Driffield Volunteers’ prize shooting event, and the distribution to the poor of roast beef and plum pudding – there are more dreadful national stories: a mutiny on a ship, murder and manslaughter, children drowning, railway accidents, a breach of promise suit, a panic in a church, a riot of ‘three thousand roughs’ at the changing of the Coldstream Guards, loan swindling, anti-income tax agitation, husband beating, unlicensed drinking, sinking ships, striking workers, and bribery in the police force.
But amidst this panoply of disaster, which can be found on most days, in most 19th century newspapers, there is also the odd surprise.
For example, there are details of an unseemly spat within the International Working Men’s Association between Karl Marx and the secular republican Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh called Marx a ‘spy for Bismarck’, and Marx responded characteristically, if somewhat churlishly: “I treated him with contemptuous silence. This was more than the grotesque vanity of that huge self-idolator could stand. My silence drove him mad”.
There was also a report, under the banner ‘The Premier and the Pantomimes’, that the Examiner of Stage Plays had been editing pantomime scripts by taking out ‘uncomplimentary allusions to Mr. Gladstone and his Ministers’. As a consequence theatergoers expecting to have a ‘hearty laugh at Mr. Gladstone’s spouting at Greenwich, Mr. Lowe’s iniquitous Match Tax or poor Mr. Bruce’s unhappy Licensing Bill’ were, it would seem, to be disappointed by the censorship of their ‘thick-skinned leaders’.
The paper recorded a meeting of the ‘Very “Peculiar People”’. This was a religious group that had been set up in the nineteenth century in Essex and London. Describing a meeting in a ‘dreary, earth-flavoured vault on Walworth Road’, the paper reports the “dancing” that had to be undertaken if one wished to become a pure Christian. A boy is ‘seized with frenzy…making the widest plunges and most absurd kicking, falling on the floor…’. A young girl is taken by a similar ‘mania’, pulling off her boots and dancing with ‘extraordinary contortions of the limbs’ with ‘gurgling, choking noises from the throat’ until she faints.
I know of the Peculiar People (since 1956, the Union of Evangelical Churches), but I had no idea what the paper was referring to in a further report, which was headed ‘More Rattening at Sheffield’. Mysteriously the report stated simply that:
“Last week the notorious ‘Mary Ann’ paid a visit to the grinding wheel, on the Rivelin, in the occupation of Mr. Samuel Marshall, manufacturer of scythes and sheep shears, and stole therefrom three scythe bands and three nuts. It is said that about two months ago the following sentences were written in chalk on the shutters of the wheel: – “Beware of ______ 6 a.m. and “Pay your natty money”. Mr. Marshall’s men state that several of their members are in arrears with their “natty”.”
Some searching elsewhere shows that the report relates to trade union activity in the Sheffield area, which had become highly militant in the 1860s both against employers but also non-union members, and including the use of explosives and even murder. This militancy culminated in 1866-7 in what was known as the Sheffield Outrages. ‘Rattening’ was the removal of pieces of machinery as a punishment for breaking union rules, and in particular not paying union dues, the ‘natty money’. This would normally have stopped a man from working in the short term. ‘Mary Ann’ was the signature used in anonymous threatening letters written to manufacturers deemed to be underpaying their employees. Five years later, then, the movement was still rumbling on. [For more on the Sheffield Outrages, see

A day in the life of a provincial newspaper (and this was only one page) is, while often depressing in its accounts of disaster and despair, nevertheless an eye-opening experience and a gateway to the footnotes of the period. The British Newspaper Archive currently has 3,276,840 pages on its site, more than enough to make ‘On the Day’ a regular feature of this blog.

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The Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club

One of the best places to find footnotes are the pages of 19th century newspapers. They were the principal way in which people found out about the world they lived in, and they are very often highly detailed. They tell the stories of people, events and organizations in a way that provides a goldmine for historians. Poring over musty old pages in the library is both an adventure in search of the information you need, but also dangerously diverting as the eye passes over headlines that seem infinitely more interesting than those you are looking for. The digitalization of newspapers has made the possibilities for the unexpected even greater as you able to find them while musing at your desk.

Such a diversion occurred last year when I was working on a microfiche in the Richmond Historical Village on Staten Island in New York. As I read the Staten Islander for 1886, I could have sworn that I read the words “Staten Island Cricket Club”. In the US? In the 19th century? The pursuit of the fate of the ill-fated United Labor Party, disappeared and off I went on a journey.

The British introduced cricket to North America in the early 18th century and its popularity grew to the extent that there was an international match between the US and Canada, held in New York, in 1844. 20,000 watched the match, with considerable betting going on. English sides toured throughout the rest of the century, on a commercial basis. Normally, the US sides were allowed to have more players (up to twice as many) to compensate for the different standards.

By the early twentieth century PG Wodehouse was able, in his book “Psmith, Journalist”, to talk of “the cricket-playing section of the United States”, and the 1917 John Barrymore film Raffles the Amateur Cracksman has the Staten Island cricket ground as its backdrop.

Cricket WatchWatching Cricket

There is still a Staten Island Cricket Club. It was founded in 1872 (though, it has been argued, even earlier) and was originally called the “Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club”. The early members were migrant officers of the British Armed Forces. It has played cricket each year since then and, the club believes that it is the oldest continuous, though not the oldest, cricket club in the United States.

The original ground was at Camp Washington near the island’s St George ferry, and is also where the club hosted the first tennis match held in the United States. Lawn tennis was ‘discovered’ by Mary Ewing Outerbridge in the Bermudas whilst on holiday, and she brought back a tennis kit ­­– including the nets ­­­– to New York in 1874, and found a home at the Staten Island cricket club grounds. In 1880 the club held “the tournament for the championship of America”.

In 1886 the club moved a couple of miles to what is now Walker Park where the club remains. The original ground was redeveloped for major league baseball, but this was unsuccessful. The New York Metropolitans played there for a few years, and briefly the New York Giants, who now play in the National League as the San Francisco Giants.

St George, Staten IslandSt George, Staten Island

The club, which had 500 members, had impressive facilities and served as a social and sports club. Lacrosse, croquet, soccer and football were also played there. There were bars and restaurants, as well as a Ladies Outdoor Amusements Club. Cricket was a sport for the wealthy; this was an area that still had fox hunting in the late 19th century.  However, as the 19th century proceeded, baseball started to take over. Part of the problem was that, whilst the game of cricket was becoming more professional elsewhere in the world, it remained a amateur game for the wealthy in the US.

Watch Once Upon A Time On Staten Island: Fox Hunts Are Long Gone But Borough’s Cricket Matches Remain

Among touring teams hosted by the club were the Gentlemen of Ireland, various English teams, including Dick Daft’s XI, an Oxford and Cambridge Team, the West Indies, and the Australian test team. Many famous cricketers have appeared there. In the 19th century W.G. Grace, Lord Hawkes and Prince K.S.Ranjitsinhji; and in the 20th century, Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Everton Weeks, Sir Garfield Sobers, Allan Border and a young Geoffrey Boycott.

In 1906 the name of the club was changed to the Staten Island Cricket and Tennis Club, and changed again in 1931 to the Staten Island Cricket Club.

The late 20th century has seen attempts to revitalize cricket in the US as a sport for the 21st century. It was recently portrayed in a Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland in which, post 9/11, a York banker takes up cricket and starts playing at the Staten Island club.

Look up:
The Staten Island Cricket Club
The Staten Island Cricket And Baseball Club’ by Charles E. Clay (1887) 
New York Times Online Archive
And for an update on the club at its 125th anniversary.
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Hatch, Victorian Villain or Forgotten Hero

Just after the first posting on this blog, I received an invitation to attend a play at our local Victoria Picture Palace Theatre in Devonport, Auckland. This is itself a footnote, being the earliest custom-built cinema in the Southern hemisphere and recently saved from developers.  The play they were advertising is called Hatch and subtitled, Victorian Villain or Forgotten Hero. Hard to resist.


Joseph Hatch, 1837-1928

A one hander, it recounts the life of Joseph Hatch, who lived from 1837 to 1928. He was a New Zealand entrepreneur and politician, but is best (well, only) remembered for harvesting penguins and elephant seals for their oil on the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In three decades, over two million penguins were killed.

He was born in London and worked in printing and perfumery before emigrating to Australia in 1856. Employed in Melbourne with a firm of wholesale druggists for five years, he was then sent to set up a branch in Dunedin in the South island of New Zealand. He subsequently ran a successful pharmacy in Invercargill and became a prominent and respectable citizen, serving as Mayor of the city and then its MP from 1884-7. His business interests proliferated and he established a bone mill and manufactured soap, candles, glycerine, sheep-dip and rabbit poison.

His biographer notes that he was:

 “a man of boundless energy…. [and for] many years there was scarcely an organisation in Invercargill in which Hatch did not take some part. His interest was never casual or perfunctory. He had decided opinions and made them known to all concerned. He was a gifted speaker, provocative, persuasive and entertaining, and in his career used this to good effect. With supreme confidence in his own judgement and a complete unwillingness to consult, his public life was often marred by conflict. As a final solution Hatch on several occasions called a public meeting to gain public support. He could be relied on to draw a crowd and generally carry them with him, even if it sometimes meant bending the truth.”

In the 1880s, he became increasingly involved in the sea elephant oiling industry. The government of New Zealand had been restricting the seal killing season from 1873, in an effort to save them from extinction. In 1886, one of Hatch’s ships became a matter of public attention when it went to rescue shipwreck survivors in the Auckland Islands. Seal skins were found on board, and Hatch had a lot of explaining to do. At the time, he was hoping to be re-elected to Parliament, and called a public meeting to explain himself. However, for the first time in his public speaking career, he was unable to win over his audience. He lost the next election.

By 1889 there were less sea elephant bulls but the Norwegians had developed a technology able to extract oil from meat and bone as well as blubber and from smaller animals like penguins. Hatch quickly realised the potential of the penguins, which included Rockhoppers, Kings, Royals and Gentoos. He was quick to take advantage of the lack of restrictions imposed by the Tasmanian Government, which administered the bleak and inhospitable Macquarie Island, halfway between New Zealand and the Antarctic Circle.

Hatch’s activities were under constant scrutiny and much criticised. At a meeting in 1891, he  claimed that the issue of protecting the penguins was ‘ridiculous nonsense’ because, compared to the huge numbers of penguins living there, few birds were killed.

Hatch leased the Island from the Tasmanian Government in 1902, and moved to Hobart in 1912. After returning from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) in 1914, Sir Douglas Mawson, campaigned to have Macquarie Island set aside as a nature reserve. This drew the attention of the media who focussed on the issue of cruelty to penguins. Hatch had to deny  English and Australian newspaper reports that his sealers herded penguins into digesters to be boiled alive.

By 1919 the concerns had developed into possibly the first-ever international campaign to preserve wildlife, with Antarctic explorers like Mawson, as well as Frank Hurley and Apsley Cherry-Garrard getting involved. They were joined by others such as H G Wells, Baron Walter Rothschild, The Times of London, and the Seamen’s Union. By now, even the Tasmanian government was losing interest (and face) and Hatch’s lease on Macquarie Inland was not renewed in 1920. Within a few years his business had collapsed, and Hatch lost his properties in Invercargill and Hobart. He died in Tasmania on 2 September 1928.

Hatch Poster

Play at Victoria Theatre, Devonport

The play I’m being asked to go to, I am told, will, as Hatch did in 1920, try to clear his name and justify his actions. It offers “alarming insights into the country’s record on conservation.” The subtitle of the play – Victorian Villain or Forgotten Hero – is actually a question to the audience which is asked to choose their preferred answer. In the 21st century, and particularly in New Zealand, the odds must be in favour of the former.

Cumpston, J.S., 1968, Macquarie Island, Australian Antarctic Division.
De la Mare, A., 1990, Joseph Hatch and the Loss of the Kakanui,
De La Mare, A., ‘Hatch, Joseph – Biography’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Auckland Theatre Company teaching materials for Hatch
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Foundation Footnote: John De Morgan

John De MorganJohn De Morgan


UPDATE: Since originally posting this six years ago, I have continued to discover much more about De Morgan, most notably through the continuing digitization of sources, particularly newspapers; the discovery in California of an extensive collection of letters written to him (now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford); a collection of political cartoons in Leeds Public Library; and further genealogical data. The most difficult part of De Morgan’s life to reclaim has been the first 20 years about which almost nothing was known. We have now discovered that this ‘Irish agitator’ was actually born in Lincolnshire in England and he moved around England throughout his childhood with his father – a railway works inspector – from one building project to another. He always claimed to have been a ‘boy orator’ and we have found him lecturing on Temperance at the age of 11. So there is enough now to consider a book based on his life, provisionally entitled ‘Agitation and Indignation: The radical life of Citizen John De Morgan in London and New York in the later 19th century’. I’m particularly grateful to Ian Bromfield, Dick Mather and AnthonyRamm for their investigative skills. The biographical sketch I promised in the original post was published in Historical Research in November 2013

Over twenty years ago, living in South East London, I was asked by some colleagues who were studying recent race riots to check whether there was any history of riots in that area. I went down to the local history museum and found an old fading photograph.

The Plumstead Common Riots 1876

Dated 1876, it shows some artfully posed rioters digging up fences used to enclose Plumstead Common, then a developing town on the edge of London. I was told that the riot’s leader was John De Morgan. Over the last twenty years I have been tracking down the life of De Morgan, of whom it was said by a local journalist that he ‘passed meteor like through our atmosphere but he was undoubtedly a remarkable man’. Historians have variously described him as a ‘swashbuckling demagogue’; a ‘democrat-messiah’; an adventurer’; even as a Victorian ‘eco-warrior’.

It was possible to find out something about him in the 1870s, mostly in brief paragraphs and short footnotes, but his personal history was difficult to unravel, particularly after he went to the US in 1880. Fascination, stubbornness and the internet mean that I have been able to bring him out of the footnotes, at least for his adult life, and I am now working on an extended biographical sketch.

Born in 1848 in Ireland (as John Francis Morgan) he claimed to have been involved in radical activities from the age of 10, and to have studied at Cambridge. Returning to Ireland as John De Morgan, he became an elocution teacher and lecturer but in 1872, as Citizen De Morgan, he established the Cork branch of Marx’s International Working Men’s Association. However, after a full-scale riot at a meeting, he was sacked from his job. He fled to England to take up the life of a professional agitator, helping to establish the short-lived National Republican Brotherhood.

In 1875 he entered the two radical movements that were to make his national reputation as an agitator. One was the cause of the Tichborne Claimant, but he first came to fame when he led major demonstrations against the selling of urban common lands to building speculators. He established the Commons Protection League and was involved with over a dozen campaigns around England two of which – Plumstead and Selston Commons – lead to him being jailed. He also established the Tichborne Propaganda Release Union and organized a notorious but unsuccessful march on the House of Commons on behalf of the Claimant.

During this period he attended hundreds of meetings, often before very large crowds, and gained a reputation as a powerful orator if a somewhat shady character. He tried to support himself by journalism – for example as editor of the splendidly titled People’s Advocate and National Vindicator of Right vs Wrong – but had to resort to teaching and selling, at one stage even becoming the agent for Rippingille’s Patent Liquid Fuel.

Eventually, he moved away from London, being elected to the Leeds School Board in 1879. An inveterate establisher of political organizations, he attempted to set up a national ‘people’s party’ under the banner of the People’s Political Union. Always interested in the possibility of standing for Parliament, he attempted unsuccessfully to become a candidate alongside Gladstone in Leeds. However, he appears to have been overwhelmed by the difficulties of the professional agitator’s life and suddenly – tired, broke, and despondent – he emigrated to the United States in 1880. He left behind his wife and children; the Mrs De Morgan he travelled with (actually Mary Schofield) was to live with him for the rest of his life.

In New York he resumed his life as a radical. He was appointed as Editor of House and Home, a weekly radical journal. He was part of the emerging populist movement, and was involved in an early, anti-monopolist People’s Party. The paper and the party folded in 1884 and, for a while, De Morgan disappeared from the public eye. In 1887, however, he relaunched himself as a writer of dime novels, originally producing Rider Haggard parodies. He became a hugely prolific writer in such popular series as Golden Hours, Brave and Bold, and Boys of Liberty. The stories were mostly for the adolescent market, varying from pseudo science fiction, to colonial and American revolutionary war stories, through to straight adventure tales. It has been claimed that he was an influence on the development by Edgar Rice Burroughs of the character of Tarzan.

Brave & Bold Weekly

He retained some political interests, generally on the fringes of the Democratic party. He twice stood unsuccessfully for political office under the ticket of the land tax reformer, Henry George. He lived all his US life on Staten Island where he fought for a free ferry, a World Fair, and the independence of the island from New York. Always suspicious of mainstream political parties, he retained some independence and was much attracted to the fusion politics of the late 1890s. In pursuit of this he campaigned for the New York Citizen’s Union. In 1901 he was appointed as a Deputy Tax Receiver, a reward for his political service.

De Morgan now moved away from his dime novel career, though his stories continued to be published for many years, and have recently been revived. He undertook occasional writing and journalism, but seems to have moved out of politics. He died on May 1st 1926, leaving one daughter by his US relationship.

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