Heavy Melodies: The Quiet Existence of Herman Bang

Born in Asserballe on the Danish island of Als on 20thApril 1857, Herman Bang came from a family with a long history of eccentricity, tales of which his paternal grandfather delighted in telling him. After graduating from the Sorø Academy, a boarding school that had once been a monastery and dated back to the twelfth century, in 1879, Bang made his literary début with the collection of essays, Realism and Realists. The volume’s positive reception saw its author drawn towards the Modern Breakthrough, a Scandinavian movement founded by the critic Georg Brandes in 1870, to promote naturalism – a theory influenced by Darwin and espousing the notion that environment and social situations had the most profound influence of all upon human behaviour. Therefore, even the most disturbing aspects of human existence were to be embraced.

Bang’s first collection of short stories, Heavy Melodies was published in 1880, followed by his first novel, Generations Without Hope. The book told the tale of William Hawk, the last surviving male descendent of an aristocratic family who becomes embroiled in a torrid love affair with the much older Countess Hatzfeldt. Generations of Hope was banned after its romantic descriptions resulted in it being classified as pornographic by an outraged Danish press. In July 1881, Bang was tried for obscenity and faced a hefty fine or fourteen days imprisonment; he chose the former.

Nevertheless, the scandal propelled him into the public eye and he moved to Copenhagen. Living in the Danish capital, he produced works such as At Home and Out (1881), Phaedra: Fragments Of a Life History (1883) and Eccentric Short Stories (1885). From 1885 to 1886, he lived in Prague, Vienna and Berlin with the German actor Max Eisfeld, who was also his lover, and wrote the novel Quiet Existences. Separating from Eisfeld, Bang returned to Denmark, where he penned several poems about their relationship, including Night and New Year, and completed the novels Stucco in 1887, Tina in 1889 and Two Tragedies in 1891. Continue reading

For The Friendless: Reverend Thomas Jackson And The Whitechapel Mission

In the East End of London, the Whitechapel Mission tirelessly provides the invaluable service that has been its purpose since its earliest incarnation as the Working Lads’ Institute and Home. With the aim of offering shelter, food and rehabilitation to young men who often had few options but petty crime, the Institute gave them an opportunity to prove themselves to be diligent and constructive members of society by encouraging them to aid the city’s most unfortunate dwellers. As a reward for their service, they would leave with glowing references and the full endorsement of the Institute.

The Working Lads’ Institute and Home was founded by the merchant and philanthropist, Henry Hill, in 1876, with the original premises at The Mount, Whitechapel Road. In 1885, the Institute was moved to a new building with an address at 285 Whitechapel Road, which even had a library, swimming baths and a gymnasium. Lads were also allowed to put on musical shows and plays, to which members of the public were invited to attend.

Several years later, the Institute would become associated with Jack the Ripper case when the inquests for the murders, of Polly Nichols and Annie Chapman were held there. Following the inquest into the murder of Frances Coles (not thought to be a Ripper victim) was conducted there in 1891, it was reported that the governor of the Institute was so annoyed by the large and noisy crowds who turned up to hear the gruesome details, that he ordered the coroner, Wynne Baxter, to find an alternative site. Continue reading

Lucky Jim: Slough’s Canine Collector

Guarding his territory and gazing out over the platforms where he roamed so freely more than a century ago, Station Jim stands to attention in his glass case on Platform 5 of Slough railway station. Commuters pass him in their hundreds every day, some taking the time to read the remarkable inscription that rests by his paws.

Jim first came to Slough as a puppy in 1894 and was soon trained to perform his duties as a canine collector on behalf of the Great Western Railway Widows and Orphans Fund. He was taught to bark gratefully whenever a coin, usually a penny or halfpenny, was placed in the wallet attached to him by a harness.  In addition to this, Jim learnt a great many other tricks in order to amuse patrons and encourage their benevolence. It was said that he could beg, play dead and sometimes even posed with a pipe in his mouth and a cap on his head. Occasionally taking a trip himself, Jim would board a train and end up at Paddington or in nearby Windsor and even once travelled as far afield as Leamington Spa. Continue reading

Talking Head: Joseph Faber’s Euphonia

Hailed as the ‘scientific sensation of the age,’ Joseph Faber’s ‘marvellous talking machine,’ known as Euphonia, was first exhibited at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia in December 1845. Faber, who had settled in America from Germany, had dedicated years of his life to his creation, having destroyed and then rebuilt it several times. The scientist Joseph Henry had been most impressed after seeing Euphonia in Philadelphia, described it as a ‘wonderful invention,’ and stating that whilst he had admired ‘the speaking figure of Mr. Wheatstone of London,’ it could ‘not be compared with this which instead of uttering a few words is capable of speaking whole sentences composed of any words.’

The purpose of Faber’s machine was to replicate human speech, and this was done by using a foot pedal which was attached to bellows via a series of tubes that connected a mechanical glottis to a keyboard. A contemporary science journal described its workings, revealing that a ‘vibrating ivory reed, of variable pitch, forms its vocal chords. There is an oral cavity, whose size and shape can be rapidly changed by depressing the keys on a key-board. A rubber tongue and lips make the consonants; a little windmill, turning in its throat, rolls the letter R, and a tube is attached to its nose when it speaks French. This is the anatomy of this really wonderful piece of mechanism.’

Euphonia’s voice emanated from behind a mask made to represent the face of beautiful young woman; it was designed to speak any European language, although contemporary accounts state that it spoke with a German accent, sang God Save the Queen, and could also mimic human laughter. Continue reading