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Was the Victorian Soldier a "Hooligan’? Social Anxiety, Fair Play, and Military Service in Victorian Britain

John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.

Charge of the 5th Lancers at Elandslaagte, Boer War, from a drawing by Richard Caton Woodville

Charge of the 5th Lancers at Elandslaagte, Boer War, from a drawing by Richard Caton Woodville

An Imperfect Role Model

The aim of this article is to demonstrate that examining the image of the soldier during the height of empire provides a useful method for understanding the relationship between the British imperial identities in contrast to other European powers and their concern over the trajectory of their own society. Within this important sub-text of societal anxiety, how the army might be a solution to society’s problems was considered and debated. The image of the soldier was manipulated as both a hero and miscreant.

The long tradition in Britain of vilifying and identifying the soldier with the lowest, and often worst, rungs of the society would prove a challenge to reforming the soldier image. Society would also later learn that their dependence on the military as the bulwark of British ideals could find itself on precarious ground, as the early setbacks in Africa would show ‘Tommy Atkins’, the nickname for the common British soldier, as a potentially unreliable figure.

I argue here that the idealization of the soldier as a social role model, and the use of the military as a cure for social problems, was inherently problematic as the soldier was an imperfect role model.

Militarism and the Late Victorian Era

The late Victorian era was replete with the imagery of empire, giving the British public a vision of their role and place in the world through illustrated journals, music halls, song sheets, paintings, the press, and advertising including cigarette cards. John MacKenzie has suggested that this was an era which saw the public enjoy ‘more positive attitudes towards war itself.’[1]

The proliferation of this sort of media and press may have done much to shape these attitudes, but an anxiety about the state of British society existed beneath this layer of popular imperialism consumed by the British public. With the perception that social decay and ‘hooliganism’ were on the rise, solutions were offered to remedy this trend, and with a society increasingly adopting militarist overtones in everything from youth groups to church groups, the army and navy were seen as among the best institutions to address these problems.

An elaborate map of the British Empire in 1886, marked in pink, the traditional color for imperial British dominions on maps - by the late Victorian period, some Britons were anxious about perceived moral and social decay eroding the empire.

An elaborate map of the British Empire in 1886, marked in pink, the traditional color for imperial British dominions on maps - by the late Victorian period, some Britons were anxious about perceived moral and social decay eroding the empire.

Social Decay in Britain and the Rise of ‘Hooliganism’

During the hot summer of 1898, outbreaks of street violence were a feature of the urban scene, at least in London, which caused commentary in the newspapers at the time.[2] Appearing, perhaps for the first time in print, but presumably a recognized moniker to the public for the perpetrators, was the term ‘hooligan’.[3] While this term applied to an apparently emerging sub-layer of the society of a criminal nature, the term, or rather the behavior, was in turn applied to fears of moral decline, a threatening youth culture against a tradition of family, idleness versus industry, and perhaps most of all, the willful ignorance of the working-class unfavorably compared against the public-school values of fair play of sportsmanlike behavior.[4]

The term ‘hooligan’ served as a rhetorical device to illustrate what were real fears of a degenerating society and national and imperial decline. In a society which saw a rise in militarism, the military institutions were considered a likely solution to solving these problems of society. The military could advertise a paradigm for social and institutional organization and discipline. In an article in The Times entitled, “Hooliganism and its cure”, a description of the problem of hooligans in Britain and a special committee which proposed the most effective measures:

“Other means there are, too—boy’s brigades, cadet corps, and the like—for rescuing embryo “Hooligans” from the streets, and they are all encouraged. But there is one thing certain, and that is that the committee will make it an essential line of conduct to work, in the first place, solely through existing institutions which have experience in coping with the problem, and solely through those of which the management has been proved to be efficacious.”[5]

Here the suggestion is that established institutions should take on the responsibility of taking on the more troublesome burdens of society. Values which were perceived to be inherent in the military became an inspirational model in a variety of non-military endeavors, all of which were linked with social control and large-scale organization, but especially with institutions. The established institutions also alluded to include some of those existing in the increasingly militarist society of Britain at this time; the Boys Brigades, among others, were established along military models.[6] Another suggestion in line with this idea of the state assuming responsibility was the next logical one it seems for those younger members of society who were already in the care of the state: those who might have already avoided the pitfalls of hooliganism, but had as yet no direction to take:

“The State has assumed the responsibilities of parent or guardian over an aggregate of children such as might [appall] the boldest. At the close of 1899 there were more than 30,000 boys and girls for whom the State stood in loco parentis. We who have seen so much in the past times of the evils of the State intervention in delicate matters are in the presence of a system of State Socialism on a scale which Plato and the earliest socialists ever contemplated.”[7]

By the time the Boer War was underway, it seems there was already evidence that might suggest to those willing to observe it, that the hooligan had found a suitable place for himself in Africa, and furthermore that the war had fulfilled itself in answering a social problem. The proceedings of a Church of England meeting held in Brighton in October 1901, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury were printed in The Times[8] and summarized in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, as well as several other papers, with an excerpt from prominent barrister H.C. Richards, who suggested that misguided urban youth might be directed to a useful civil or military function:

“You have to catch him and to train him. You must provide him with some recreation, otherwise he loafs—he watches, he organises, and he develops into a ruffian. In fact, the corner boy becomes an amateur detective against the police, and the ringleader of a band which, if taken in hand by the Cadet Corps or the Recruiting Sergeant, might vie with De Wet in mobility, and with Botha in despatch.”[9]

The Boer General Christiann de Wet led a highly mobile and successful guerrilla campaign against the British army in the Boer War, which in turn inspired increasingly oppressive and ethically questionable practices to repress the insurgency.

The Boer General Christiann de Wet led a highly mobile and successful guerrilla campaign against the British army in the Boer War, which in turn inspired increasingly oppressive and ethically questionable practices to repress the insurgency.

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Here the suggestion seems to be that the wily nature of the disaffected street youth might be a match for the guerrilla Boer fighters, who at the time of publication were the chief antagonists confounding the British army in South Africa. Another paper reported in kind:

“While the substitution of more interesting work for the old stupid wood-chopping is fitting the boys for their later careers, the South African war has shown what they can become when they pass into the Army. Of ex-truants and the like 2,397 have been fighting for their Queen, 113 died for her, one gained a V.C., and others have performed splendid feats of gallantry at Colenso, Elands Laagte, Spion Kop, and Modder River. The lesson is – this is what can be done with your Hooligan when you catch him young.”[10] - (Pall Mall Gazette, 1901)

"Saving the guns at Colenso" by Sidney Paget - Colenso, Modder River, and Spion Kop were all British losses to the Boers. Elandslaagte was a British victory where the British later conceded their grounds gained to the Boers only two days later.

"Saving the guns at Colenso" by Sidney Paget - Colenso, Modder River, and Spion Kop were all British losses to the Boers. Elandslaagte was a British victory where the British later conceded their grounds gained to the Boers only two days later.

This view was not, however, without its opponents, particularly those concerned over the rise of militarism in the country, and the Daily Mail was a battleground for such debates:

“The advocates of what your correspondent terms ‘Militarism’ aim at obtaining control over a section of the community, probably unreachable by other means, with a view of directing the thoughts and energies of growing lads (and future citizens) into useful channels teaching them the virtues of obedience to laws, framed for the common good and convenience, and the value of self-control and co-operation. Military organisation does teach these things. So do the religions, so do many other societies, but they do not succeed in getting hold of the ‘Hooligan’ as does the military method.”[11]

The suitability of the hooligan for military service was in part being motivated by the war in South Africa, and thus seen as a practical solution.

The Victorian Soldier as a ‘Hooligan’

Historically, British society already experienced a paradoxical relationship with its military. The idea that the soldier could be at once a hooligan, villain, or a hero, was a matter of interpretation, even of manipulation. Soldiers were, at least in the case of the common soldier based on the history of British society’s relationship with their army, was a most unlikely group for admiration. This view could be described as follows:

“During the great wars at the beginning of the century various systems were adopted to obtain recruits. Life service, high bounties, short service, and other expedients were tried, and sometimes were all in force at the same time. Criminals were pardoned on the condition of service abroad, and Mr. Clode tells us that ‘three regiments were thus formed, and others recruited.’ The Duke of Wellington in 1809 said, ‘it was impossible to describe the irregularities and outrages committed by the troops.’ Again, in 1811, ‘none but the worst description of men enter the Regular service.’”[12] - (Gen. John Adye, The Times, 1891)

The army was viewed by most Britons with mistrust and distaste at its forming a sub-culture in British life. Ordinary soldiers were commonly seen as being pathetic slaves in red coats but also tools of oppression against their own people. Their coarse, often drunken behavior, and brawls with civilians and each other were viewed as a widespread problem. They were also despised as lazy wastrels and the outcasts and dregs of society; the officers were often viewed as violent, drunken scoundrels and arrogant snobs, and all ranks had a reputation as unprincipled seducers. In this light, the soldier or military figure hardly seems the likely candidate to be viewed as a hero.

But the democratization of military virtue which had gradually taken place by the time of the Cardwell reforms following the Crimean War, such as with the establishment of the Victoria Cross. Scott Myerly has noted the significance and importance of military pageantry in improving the image of the home army.[13] With the rise of militarism, civilian identification with the army became the norm through various societies in clubs and was encouraged further at the start of the Boer War.[14] Rudyard Kipling in his Barrack Room Ballads, did much to improve on the popular image of the soldier and draw attention to his plight with Tommy and The Absent-Minded Beggar. Through Kipling, Tommy Atkins in his colloquial tongue spoke of his trials on campaign and on the home front.

Rudyard Kipling, by Bourne & Shepherd, Calcutta (1892)

Rudyard Kipling, by Bourne & Shepherd, Calcutta (1892)

Kipling’s work enjoyed great popularity, even gaining sympathy in the public for the soldier he championed in the process. The extent to which Kipling’s Ballads were reflective of his subject remains a current debate.[15] Kipling was also not without critics in his time. The last essay of poet Robert Buchanan created some controversy in his attack on Rudyard Kipling. Published in The Contemporary Review in December 1899, “The Voice of the Hooligan” was as much an attack on Kipling, as it was an expression of Buchanan’s anti-war views and a commentary on the popular strain of jingoistic patriotism which he believed was at fault with society. A specific target of Buchanan’s commentary was Kipling’s popular representation of the soldier:

“Englishmen in times past were not merely brave, they could be noble and magnanimous; their courage was not only that of the bulldog, but of the patriot, the hero, and even the philanthropist: they had not yet begun to mingle the idea of a national Imperialism with the political game of brag. I am not contending for one moment that the spirit which inspired them then has altogether departed; I am sure, on the contrary, that it is living yet, and living most strongly and influentially in the heart of the Army itself; but if this is admitted and believed, it is certain that the Tommy Atkins of Mr. Rudyard Kipling deserves drumming out of all decent barracks as a monstrosity and a rogue.”[16]

Here, Buchanan had attempted to articulate a gap between the army and civilian sensibilities which, in turn, denied the possibility of a homogeneous national character where civil and military worlds were compatible expressions of empire.[17]

Concerns over the conduct of the soldier at war, in a society increasingly preoccupied with ideals of fair play and gentlemanly conduct, were periodically scrutinized, particularly for political benefit. The penultimate battle of the Mahdist War at Omdurman in 1899 was also not without controversy, and the alleged butchering of wounded and fleeing dervishes was debated in Parliament.[18] Accounts of the conduct of the British soldiers engaged with the enemy were recounted not only by the likes of Winston Churchill[19] but by other witnesses such as Captain E.B. Yeager of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who noted the conduct of his men at the conclusion of the battle:

“The battle was now nearly over, and we were ordered to form fours left and proceed to Omdurman. On the way we passed many wounded Dervishes, and ‘Tommy’ delighted in plunging his bayonet into the dead and wounded.”[20]

The Battle of Omdurman, 1898, from the Purton Museum, Wiltshire. This illustration depicts the British wearing the red home service uniforms to identify the different regiments involved.

The Battle of Omdurman, 1898, from the Purton Museum, Wiltshire. This illustration depicts the British wearing the red home service uniforms to identify the different regiments involved.

W.T. Stead and his critical paper, War against War, did not fail to cast the British soldier in Africa as a villain in his pro-Boer rhetoric. Stead repeatedly presents the soldier as savage, ignorant, and ungodly in contrast to the Boers, which he describes as both spiritually and socially superior.[21] The perpetrators of the so-called methods of barbarism were not just the generals who led and directed policy, but the soldiers and their officers on the veld. L. March Phillipps, a middle class volunteer and officer who served in the Boer War as an officer with Rimington’s Guides, a light horse cavalry scout unit, made numerous observations about his fellow soldiers during the war and their depiction in the press:

“The newspapers describe the British soldier, I suppose, to suit the public too, much on the same lines. He is the most simpering, mild-mannered, and perfect gentleman. If you asked him to loot a farm, he would stare at you in shocked amazement. He is, of course, ‘as brave as a lion,’ his courage being always at that dead level of perfect heroism which makes the term quite meaningless…This is about as much like our dear, old, real Tommy Atkins as Kipling's portrait was. Such a likeness does no honour to the man. It is simply lifeless...Soldiers as a class (I take the town-bred, slum-bred majority, mind) are men who have discarded the civil standard of morality altogether. They simply ignore it. This, no doubt, is why civilians fight shy of them. In the game of life they don't play the same rules, and the consequence is a good deal of misunderstanding, until finally the civilian says he won't play with the Tommy anymore.”[22]

Careful to distance himself socially and from the actions of his fellow soldiers, Phillipps provided an excellent account of the behavior Tommy Atkins got up to:

“I have seen Tommies take possession of the most ridiculous things—perambulators and sewing machines, with a vague idea of carting them home somehow—but looting for the sheer fun of the destruction; tearing down pictures to kick their boots through them; smashing furniture for the fun of smashing it, and may be dressing up in women's clothes to finish with, and dancing among the ruins they have made. To pick up a good heavy stone and send it wallop right through the works of a piano is a great moment for Tommy. I daresay there is something in it, you know.”[23]

One British response to the guerrilla war was a 'scorched earth' policy to deny the guerrillas supplies and refuge. In this image Boer civilians watch their house as it is burned.

One British response to the guerrilla war was a 'scorched earth' policy to deny the guerrillas supplies and refuge. In this image Boer civilians watch their house as it is burned.

At this peak of empire, British society was preoccupied with its direction as well as the apparent decay of civilization and society. The army as an institution which played a role in its ultimate direction and destiny in the expansion of empire would be the subject of scrutiny as to the composition of membership and the extent to which it might reflect society. The hooligan and his apparent rise were unsettling for many, but when during the Boer War recruits were ultimately rejected for military service, the concern grew to alarm in the press about the future of the British race:

“…unless we can turn back into the country the tide of humanity which keeps flooding into the towns. These returns disclose the alarming facts that 8,000 out of 11,000 who volunteered for service in South Africa were rejected as unfit to carry a rifle on the veld, and that of the 3,000 who were accepted only 1,200 came up to the recognized standard of what a soldier ought to be. These facts, unless there is some satisfactory explanation to deprive them of their importance, ought to keep us awake at night, for they mean that, if existing conditions are allowed to continue for a generation or two unchecked and unchanged, our successors will not be able to bear the burden of Empire.”[24]

The early repeated defeats of the Boer War fueled the fears of national degeneration and emasculation. Likewise, manifestations of patriotism were a cause of concern for some. While much has been written about the contribution of the music hall to jingoism, this complaint to the editor of The Era alludes to not only hooliganism in the music hall, but the concern of the British public over how patriotic displays themselves might have crossed a line into riotous behavior:

“Is not the music hall responsible to a large extent for ‘Hooliganism’—not the Hooliganism which is manifested in murderous assaults and robbery from the person, but the species of it which perverts a city’s tribute to its brave sons into an [orgie] that would shame even a savage people?...The ‘patriotic’ songs are a compact of bombast and bloodthirstiness, and are unworthy of an Englishman. Yet the besotted ruffians who molest our women in the streets, yell them in the name of the Empire, and in honour of the home-coming of our brave volunteers!”[25]

After the war, the Daily Chronicle declared: ‘We have no wish to advocate the hysteria of which is the name is “mafficking”’.[26] The material cost of war, unsuitable rejected volunteers, the children of British soldiers as yet unborn, which Kipling highlighted in his popular poem The Absent-Minded Beggar, also possibly degenerate, all weighed on the imperial consciousness.[27]

An Anxious Empire

The anxiety of British society over crime, the working classes, and the decay of their society was a contemporary obsession of the late Victorian period; the war in South Africa provided an opportunity for this debate to be exploited further. Through the popular imagery of empire and that surrounding hooliganism, British soldiers could be either heroes or criminals, in conflict rife with its own internal political antagonisms. Empire, conceptually, was a method for bridging some of the political divisions or distracting citizens from day to day to concerns. War, likewise, in the imperial vision could serve as a means to highlight British virtues, but also grave concerns on the trajectory of society when things went badly.

The rehabilitation of the public image of the British soldier was a gradual process. Slowly and with some efficacy, army and military service was being linked to sober British values and to ideals of patriotism. These virtues and the linking of military service to service to the state would prove vital for Britain within a few years of the Boer War at the start of the First World War.

Notes on Sources

1) John M. MacKenzie, Popular Imperialism and the Military, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992),1.

2) The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Aug 17, 1898; pg. 7; Issue 35597.

3) Ibid

4) Steve Attridge, Nationalism, Imperialism, and Identity in Late Victorian Culture, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003) 97.

5) The Times “Hooliganism and its cure”, (London, England), Thursday, Dec 06, 1900; pg. 13; Issue 36318.

6) Ian F. W. Beckett, Britain’s Part-Time Soldiers, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991) 199.

7) The Times (London, England), Thursday, Nov 29, 1900; pg. 9; Issue 36312.

8) The Times (London, England), Friday, Oct 04, 1901; pg. 5; Issue 36577.

9) Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (Manchester, England), Friday, October 04, 1901; pg. 5; Issue 14011.

10) The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), Wednesday, November 21, 1900; Issue 11122.

11) Daily Mail (Hull, England), Tuesday, June 10, 1902; pg. 6; Issue 5192.

12) The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Feb 25, 1891; pg. 3; Issue 33257.

13) Scott Hughes Myerly, "The Eye Must Entrap the Mind: Army Spectacle and Paradigm in Nineteenth Century Britain”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 26, no. 1 (Autumn 1992): 105-106.

14) Ibid, 106.

15) Peter Bailey in “Kipling's Bully Pulpit: Patriotism, Performance and Publicity in the Victorian Music Hall”, Kipling Journal, (April, 2011) 38, offers his doubts on the extent to which serving soldiers accepted Kipling’s adaption of the soldiers’ colloquial style in his poems and stories as an accurate representation of themselves. Steve Attridge also outlines the critical responses by contemporary literary critics of Kipling’s portrayals as well in his book Nationalism, Imperialism and Identity in Late Victorian Culture, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 75-78.

16) Robert Buchanan “The Voice of the Hooligan” in Contemporary Review 1899, from Kipling: The Critical Heritage, edited by Roger Lancelyn Green, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971: 241-242.

17) Attridge, Nationalism, 71.

18) House of Commons, 17 February 1899, vol. 66, 1279-81.

19) Ibid, 1281.

20) Diary of Major E.B. Eager, unpublished family memoir loaned to the author by Susan Humphrey.

21) Ingrid Hanson, “‘God’ll Send the Bill to You’: The Costs of War and the God Who Counts in W.T. Stead’s Pro-Boer Peace Campaign”, Journal of Victorian Culture, Vol.20, No.2 (2015): 179-180.

22) L. March Phillipps, With Rimington, (London: Edward Arnold, 1902). Accessed from: Project Gutenberg Book, Book

23) Ibid

24) The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Nov 26, 1901; pg. 7; Issue 36622.

25) The Era (London, England), Saturday, November 10, 1900, Issue 3242.

26) Daily Chronicle, 9 July 1902.

27) Hanson, “God’ll Send the Bill to You”, 180.

© 2019 John Bolt

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