Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

‘Are we in England Infested by Parasites?’ Historical reports from the BNA.

Yesterday, in the glorious 27 degree July sunshine, I visited the British Newspaper Archive at their reading rooms in Colindale, North London. After obtaining my newspaper reader pass, I settled down to see what the archive had to offer by way of nineteenth century curiosities and I wasn’t disappointed!

Although my main search was for ‘parasites in the news’, I stumbled – rather haphazardly – across a few unrelated entries that surprised me. The first of which was the publishing of multiple suicide notes (mostly from young women, ill-treated by men). What shocked me, other than the very odd and slightly distressing idea of publishing something so private and obviously meant for their families, was the type of language used. These women writing at the end of the nineteenth century were using the same language, feeling the same emotions and hiding the same anxieties that women use, feel and hide over a hundred years later. It’s not that I’m naïve enough to overlook human nature, or that I think suicide is, by any means, a new phenomenon; I think it’s just the levelling impact of strong emotion that made reading the faded sepia print detailing the deaths of Victorian twenty-somethings an uncomfortably uncanny experience.

Surprise find #2, on a lighter note, was the discovery (in papers like the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 1882) of curiously satirical fables. One of which was about a wolf, drinking from a stream, who tried to provoke a nearby lamb, only to get into a series of erroneous conversations to prove his ‘insanity’ so that he wouldn’t be held accountable for later eating said lamb. The moral of this one rather escapes me![1]

And so to parasites! Among the, not insubstantial, accounts of parasites and parasitic diseases, there were a few things I found of particular interest. The first (as I suspected) was the in vogue status of the parasite at the end of the nineteenth century, not only as a signification of colonial anxiety but also as a strong marker of social unrest. The public are conscious of, not only biological parasites, but of parasitism in social, intellectual and political life. Given the social origin of ‘parasite’ this may seem inevitable, however this social parasitism is framed by discourses of evolution and degeneration. ‘There are parasitic peers, bishops, rectors, curates, doctors, school-masters, editors, hedgers, and ditchers, bell-ringers, and beadles, all evading the trouble and risk of independent thought and speech for sordid comfort and small ambitions,’ says Rev. T.W. Holmes in a lecture reprinted in the Sheffield Independent in 1887. This demonstrates the infiltration of ‘parasites’ to all aspects of society. Among these parasites he identifies the novelist who steals his plots and the lecturer who doesn’t acknowledge the source of his quotations and has ‘bad framework’ bulging with the ‘stolen thoughts of other men, and resembling a very thin chicken very badly stuffed.’[2]

This and similar reports concentrate on the dangers of parasitic lifestyles, for the parasite and the host. The Leicester Chronicle of 1883 further links the biological and the social by ranking man among well-known parasites: ‘The parasite may be a plant, an animal, a man, a class, a society, a church or a nation. The mistletoe is parasitic on the oak or apple tree; the thread-worm on animals; the tapeworm on man; man, on other men.[3] The piece goes on to warn of degeneration: ‘having nothing to do, the power of doing eventually departs. Limbs shrivel up, organs disappear, activity becomes almost extinct. The creature sinks in the scale of life as much in some cases as if a crab were to degenerate into a jellyfish.’ Fears of social behaviour directly affecting physiology stems from the anxiety surrounding Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, a concept explored in works like H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine published in 1895. In Wells’ novella the exploitative relationship between the educated and working classes evolves into a complicated parasitic relationship between two degenerate species with man as their common ancestor. Wells’ even suggests that society is heading that way in 1895 with the working classes barely ever seeing the light of day and so primed to become their subterranean Morlock descendants.

Other references to parasites included the use of parasitic diseases to excuse immoral behaviour: ‘During the day he drank four or five bottles of champagne. “If I had not done so” he said, “I should have died of Malaria.”[4] And the farrago of miracle cures for various diseases, ‘Collins’ disinfecting powder’ one advert boasts ‘is of more worth than the united labours of Boards of Health, Sanatory Inspectors, Health committees, Commissioners of sewers &e., &e.,&e., all put together’ and will make even the most sordid and unsanitary conditions smell ‘as sweet as a lady’s dressing room!’ Quite a feat!


[1] Editor, ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’ Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (Mon 2nd Jan. 1882)

[2] The Rev. T.W. Holmes, ‘The Political Parasite’ lecture reprinted in The Sheffield Independent (Wed 30th Nov. 1887)

[3] Editor, ‘Parasites’ Leicester Chronicle (Sat 17th  Nov. 1883)

[4] Editor, ‘The Superintendent’s Sad Story’ Sheffield Evening Herald (Fri 28th Aug. 1903)  

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3 thoughts on “‘Are we in England Infested by Parasites?’ Historical reports from the BNA.

  1. Fascinating. Can you provide any more details about the suicide notes? Did you note where you found them? As a genealogist and microhistorian I would love to explore this phenomenon in more depth.

    I’m interested that you visited the BNA at Colindale rather than using their website. The search interface is very powerful and the online collection is growing by the day. It is transforming the way I work.

    • interdisciplinarydialogues on said:

      Hi Caroline! You’re right, the online collection is fantastic and really helping to open access up to researchers. I went to the reading rooms because I wasn’t sure all the things I wanted were digitised; turns out they are in the middle of moving sites and so had boxed up all the hard copies from mid to the end of the C19th (my interest!) Unfortunately I didn’t note down much about the suicide notes as I just stumbled across them in my searches (I wish I could remember more; they were fascinating!). I’m sure that you can find them through keyword searches online though, as I ended up doing all my research on digitised papers in the end anyway! Best of Luck.

  2. Pingback: British Newspaper Archive Blog » Parasites in the British Newspaper Archive!

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