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‘Violent affections of the mind’: The Emotional Contours of Rabies

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Living through the Covid-19 pandemic has more than drummed home the emotional dimensions of diseases. Grief, anger, sorrow, fear, and – sometimes – hope have been felt and expressed repeatedly over the last year, with discussions emerging on Covid-19’s impact on emotions and the affect of lockdown on mental health.

But emotions have long since stuck to diseases. Rabies – sometimes called hydrophobia – is a prime example.[i] In nineteenth-century Britain, France, and the United States, rabies stoked anxieties. Before the gradual and contested acceptance of germ theory at the end of the nineteenth century, some doctors believed that rabies had emotional causes.

For much of the nineteenth century, the theory that rabies generated spontaneously jostled with the one that held that it was spread through a poison or virus. The spontaneous generation theory stressed the communality of human and canine emotions. Rather than contagion through biting, emotional sensitivity made both species susceptible to the disease.

A sensitive person prone to emotional disturbances was considered particularly at risk from external influences that might cause rabies to appear. “Violent affections of the mind, operating suddenly and powerfully on the nervous system” could in rare cases lead to rabies or, at the very least, exacerbate the symptoms in nervous patients, according to Manchester physician Samuel Argent Bardsley (who was more commonly known for promoting quarantine as a way of containing the disease).

For one Lancashire man, John Lindsay, the difficulty of feeding his family drove him to anxiety and despair, exacerbated by a bout of overwork and a lack of food. Fatigued, suffering from headaches, and fearing liquids, Lindsay remembered being bitten by a supposed mad dog some twelve years previously. Amidst violent spasms, visions of the black dog “haunted his imagination with perpetual terrors” and made recovery seem “hopeless.” With reluctance, Bardsley concluded that this was a case of spontaneous rabies. Emotional distress and an overactive imagination had caused and aggravated the disease.

During the mid-nineteenth century prominent London doctors argued that rabies was closely linked to hysteria and had emotional and imaginative origins, much to the chagrin of veterinarian William Youatt, the leading opponent of theories of spontaneous generation.[ii] In the 1870s alienists (otherwise known as psychiatrists) then lent greater intellectual credibility to theories of rabies’ emotional aetiology. They stressed the powerful sway that emotions and the mind held over individuals, especially in the enervating conditions of modern life.

Physician and prominent British authority on mental disorders Daniel Hack Tuke argued that disturbing emotions and images could create hydrophobic symptoms in susceptible individuals. Referencing Bardsley, and drawing on French examples, he argued that “such cases illustrate the remarkable influence exerted upon the body by what is popularly understood as the Imagination.” The very act of being bitten by a dog and the “fearful anticipation of the disease” was enough to spark rabies , even if the dog was not rabid. Even rational and emotionally-hardy doctors had reported suffering from hydrophobic symptoms when recalling the appalling scenes of distress during the examination and treatment of hydrophobic patients.[iii] 

Tuke suggested that in some cases excitement or other forms of mental, emotional, and sensory overstimulation could activate the virus years after a bite from a rabid dog. He drew on a striking case from the United States, as reported by the Daily Telegraph in 1872. A farmer’s daughter had been bitten by a farm dog when choosing chickens for slaughter. The wound healed and no signs of rabies appeared until her wedding day two months later. The “mental excitement” of this life-changing event brought on a dread of water. After the ceremony she experienced spasms and “died in her husband’s arms.”

Tuke reproduced the newspaper’s view, and more generalized gendered assumptions about female emotional delicacy, that such “nervous excitement” had a profound influence on the “gentler” sex. In this case, her nerves were considered to have been exacerbated by the anticipation of the impending wedding night, which was often framed as an emotionally fraught sexual encounter.[iv]

Dr William Lauder Lindsay of the Murray Royal Asylum in Perth, Scotland, was another prominent proponent of the view that rabies was a predominately emotional disease. The disease, he argued, “is frequently, if not generally, the result of terror, ignorance, prejudice, or superstition, acting on a morbid imagination and a susceptible nervous temperament.” Under the sway of their overactive imagination, an individual could take on “canine proclivities,” such as barking and biting. In classist language, Lindsay argued that rabies showed the influence of mind over the body, especially in the “lower orders of the community.”[v]

The British alienists’ depiction of rabies as a predominately emotional disorder made its way across the Atlantic. In the mid-1870s Dr William A. Hammond, President of the New York Neurological Society and leading American authority on mental disorders, stated that the evidence from Europe suggested that heightened emotions might cause rabies in humans. More generally, New York physicians and neurologists debated whether or not individuals had died from actual rabies or fears of the disease, and discussed how fear might turn a bite from a healthy animal into death.[vi]

The alienists lent greater credibility to earlier theories that rabies anxieties could lead to imaginary or spurious rabies. Tuke asserted that fears of rabies could create an imaginary manifestation of the disease. “Hydrophobia-phobia” demonstrated clearly the “action of mind upon mind,” and was distinct from the “action of the mind upon the body” in those cases when emotional distress led to actual rabies.

Echoing Tuke, Lindsay identified women as a particular vector in triggering spurious rabies. He asserted that they spread rabies fears, as supposedly shown by an Irishwomen in Perth who had frightened her husband into believing he had rabies. For Lindsay, this was a classic case of spurious (or false) rabies, which required the rational and firm intervention of medical men, such as himself, to stamp out. But he felt himself fighting an unstoppable tide. For in America, as well as Britain, the press ignited fears and created spurious rabies in susceptible individuals.[vii]

Lindsay and Tuke believed that rabies could, in some cases, be transmitted by dogs to humans through biting and “morbid saliva.” But some doctors controversially argued that it was a purely emotional disease. Eminent Parisian doctor Édouard-François-Marie Bosquillon set the tone in 1802 when he confidently declared that rabies in humans was caused solely by terror. His observation that individuals were struck with hydrophobic symptoms, including “loss of reason” and convulsive movements,” at the sight of a mad dog provided sufficient proof.

Horror-inducing tales of rabies, fed to children from a young age, created fertile conditions for the development of the disease, particularly in “credulous, timid and melancholic” people. Gaspard Girard, Robert White, William Dick, and J.-G.-A. Faugére-Dubourg developed this line of argument as the century progressed. And the theory had traction. In the 1890s, Philadelphian neurologist Charles K. Mills insisted that rabies was purely a disease of the nerves. Such theories were, however, contentious, and Tuke cautioned against those who asserted that rabies was solely an imaginary disease.[viii]

Nonetheless, these theories cemented rabies as an emotionally-fraught disease and reinforced the dangers of dogs bites: even a bite from a healthy dog could trigger a lethal neurological reaction in the swelling ranks of anxious individuals. 

Dr Chris Pearson is Senior Lecturer in Twentieth Century History at the University of Liverpool. His next book Dogopolis: How Dogs and Humans made Modern London, New York, and Paris is forthcoming (2021) with University of Chicago Press. He runs the Sniffing the Past blog and you can download a free Android and Apple smart phone app on the history of dogs in London, New York, and Paris. You can find Chris on Twitter @SniffThePastDog.


Cover image: ‘Twenty four maladies and their remedies’. Coloured line block by F. Laguillermie and Rainaud, ca. 1880. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/pysjar4f/images?id=mpqquvrh [accessed 25 March 2021].

[i] Contemporaries sometimes used “rabies” and “hydrophobia” interchangeably to refer to the disease in animals and dogs, but sometimes used “rabies” to refer to the disease in dogs and “hydrophobia” for humans. With the rise of germ theory at the end of the nineteenth century, “rabies” gradually replaced “hydrophobia.” For simplicity’s sake, I will use “rabies” to refer to the disease in humans and animals unless I quote directly from a historical source.

[ii] Samuel Argent Bardsley, Medical Reports of Cases and Experiments with Observations Chiefly Derived from Hospital Practice: To which are Added an Enquiry into the Origin of Canine Madness and Thoughts on a Plan for its Extirpation from the British Isles (London: R Bickerstaff, 1807), 238-50, 284, 290; “Hydrophobia”, The Sixpenny Magazine, February 1866; Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys, Rabies in Britain: Dogs, Disease and Culture, 1830-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 [2007]), 61-3.

[iii] Daniel Hack Tuke, Illustrations of the Influence of the Mind Upon the Body in Health and Disease Designed to Elucidate the Action of the Imagination (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1873), 198-99, 207.

[iv] Tuke, Illustrations,200-1; Daily Telegraph, 11 April 1872; Peter Cryle, “‘A Terrible Ordeal from Every Point of View’: (Not) Managing Female Sexuality on the Wedding Night,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 18, no. 1 (2009): 44-64.

[v] William Lauder Lindsay, Mind in the Lower Animals in Health and Disease, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, 1879), 17; William Lauder Lindsay, “Madness in Animals,” Journal of Mental Science 17:78 (1871), 185; William Lauder Lindsay, “Spurious Hydrophobia in Man,” Journal of Mental Science 23: 104 (January 1878), 551-3; Pemberton and Worboys, Rabies, 96-7; Liz Gray, “Body, Mind and Madness: Pain in Animals in the Nineteenth-Century Comparative Psychology,” in Pain and Emotion in Modern History, ed. Rob Boddice (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014), 148-63.

[vi] “Hydrophobia: The Subject Discussed by Medical Men,” New York Times, 7 July 1874; Jessica Wang, Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers: Rabies, Medicine, and Society in an American Metropolis, 1840-1920. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 150-1.

[vii] Tuke, Illustrations, 198-99; Lindsay, “Spurious Hydrophobia in Man,” 555-6, 558.

[viii] Lindsay, Mind in the Lower Animals, 176; Édouard-François-Marie Bosquillon, Mémoire sur les causes de l’hydrophobie, vulgairement connue sous le nom de rage, et sur les moyens d’anéantir cette maladie (Paris: Gabon, 1802), 2, 22, 26; Vincent di Marco, The Bearer of Crazed and Venomous Fangs: Popular Myths and Delusions Regarding the Bite of the Mad Dog (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2014), 141-47; Pemberton and Worboys, Rabies, 64; Tuke, Illustrations, 198-99; Wang, Mad Dogs, 151-2.

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‘Always protest’? Drag Race, Pathé Newsreels, and Subversion in Mainstream Media

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RuPaul’s Drag Race sells itself, and has been praised, as a subversive television series. RuPaul, eponymous creator of the drag contest gameshow, has stated ‘true drag will never be mainstream. Because true drag has to do with seeing that this world is an illusion’. British judge Graham Norton recently claimed ‘there’s something dangerous about drag still’. Echoing this, a contestant queen from the syndicated British Drag Race enthused that ‘Drag was always a protest, a political statement’. Drag Race, participants and producers alike insist, is inherently subversive because drag necessarily challenges the gender norms of ‘straight’ society.

Drag Race has also become a mass media phenomenon. A niche show in 2009, its 13th series premiered this year to 1.3 million viewers. Interviewed, like any self-respecting A-list celebrity, by the Muppets and toting both a Simpsons cameo and a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, RuPaul is arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. This begs the question, can drag retain a subversive edge in mainstream media?

To consider this, it is instructive to look at one of drag’s first brushes with mass media in Britain. It was during the interwar period that drag first appeared onscreen, chiefly through cinema newsreels. Newsreels – short non-fiction topical films summarising the week’s current events – were included in almost every cinema programme until the 1960s. To leaven the news, they frequently featured variety entertainment; offshoot newsreels such as Pathetone were evencomprised entirely of filmed music hall acts.

A well-established form of music hall repertory from the nineteenth century, drag soon found its way into the newsreel. Bert Errol amazed cinemagoers by changing into high drag before their eyes in 1922. West-End comedian Douglas Byng appeared in rudimentary drag singing innuendo-laden falsetto across the 1930s. A 1937 item covered a police pantomime, with multiple shots of officers putting on makeup and dresses. In 1939, six sailors dressed as fairies sang and pranced before King-Emperor George VI during a naval inspection.

This seems remarkable at a time when populist paper John Bull ran editorials attacking London’s queer men for transvestism, castigating them as the ‘painted boy menace’.[1] From the mid-1920s, men wearing women’s clothes and makeup became tantamount to being queer.[2] In the 1930s, it is estimated 40 percent of Britons went to the cinema once and 25 percent twice or more a week.[3] To make drag palatable for the mainstream, newsreels had to ensure conventional manliness remained unchallenged and any association with queerness was muted.

As such, newsreels usually placed drag in establishment settings. Byng was a fixture of London’s fashionable set, always filmed in high-end venues like the Paradise Club, laughing with elites more so than at them. Likewise, Errol’s wife helped him change into drag, making sure audiences knew he was a red-blooded heterosexual, wig and high heels notwithstanding. The police officers and sailors returned to their uniforms, drag but a brief interlude (the naval fairies lasted but twenty seconds onscreen) from their ‘manly’ public service. Ensconced in marriage, elite society, and ‘masculine’ professions, queens could not truly send up the establishment when they were often performing from the heart of it.

Moreover, newsreels always framed drag as comedy. Ian Green has argued comedy allows latitude for contentious topics. Yet, because comedy resolves in laughter, it curtails earnest critique.[4] David Sutton likewise concludes comedy as a genre is ‘the appropriate site for the inappropriate, the proper place for indecorum’.[5] Comedy is establishment-condoned critique, safely dissipated in laughter. All the above acts, awash with puns and gags, aimed to make cinemagoers laugh, not challenge their gendered assumptions. Far from a challenge to the status quo, then, interwar drag acts could only enter mainstream media as safe entertainment bereft of queer connotations.

This is not to say drag culture could not be subversive. For queer men to wear women’s clothes and attend drag balls was certainly a brave and subversive act in the interwar period, one that provoked the British establishment.[6] The interwar life of Quentin Crisp is representative of the defiant subversion that came from wearing cosmetics.

Yet, as Jacob Bloomfield has shown, drag onstage was not inherently controversial and remained a staple of popular theatre.[7] Similarly, filmed drag acts obviated controversy in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In fact, looking at newsreel drag items reveals a legacy of conservatism for drag acts in the mainstream.

The producers of Drag Race would like to make their show the heir to the counterculture of drag balls and gay bars. Yet, in many respects, itis the mainstream heir to newsreel variety acts. Like newsreels, Drag Race is foremost comic entertainment, more inclined to jokes than politics. What little gender discussion there is occurs in the fleeting moments between farcical gameshow skits. The only challenges presented are to the competing queens’ dignities.

Like Pathe’s producers, RuPaul has espoused a profoundly conservative view of ‘true’ drag. Through transphobic comments, he has stressed drag as the exclusive province of gay men. Thus, much as newsreels removed any ‘controversial’ association with queerness, so Drag Race has placed strict limits on what drag represents and who can perform it.  

A look at the history of drag in newsreels reveals that to project drag through mass media is not inherently subversive. Whether in Pathé or on BBC3, being produced as mainstream entertainment severely curtails any potential for real subversion of societal norms such as gender. Former drag performer Paul O’Grady, carping in 2017 about Drag Race, contended that his drag persona Lilly Savage ‘belonged in a pub, especially a gay bar, where you could rant and rave’.  Considering drag’s relationship with popular media, perhaps it is only in niche subcultures that subversion can truly flourish.

Conner Scott is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research seeks to explore the role of British newsreels in everyday life, and how they (re)presented the cinemagoing public to itself on a weekly basis between c.1919-c.1939.


Cover image: Manchester Pride Parade 2019. A group of five drag queens representing BBC’s ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ on pink stage, Manchester, 24 August 2019. Used courtesy of Goncalo Telo for non-commercial, educational purposes. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/manchester-uk-august-24-2019-pride-1489347011

[1] Matt Houlbrook, ‘“The man with the powder puff” in Interwar London’, The Historical Journal 50.1 (2007), pp. 147-49.

[2] I use the term queer as it was the most common self-identity of interwar men who had sexual and emotional relationships with other men and avoids the anachronism of gay. See Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London, 2005), p. xiii.

[3] Annette Kuhn, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London, 2002), p. 2.

[4] Ian Green, ‘Ealing: In the Comedy Frame’ in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds), British Cinema History (London, 1983), p. 296.

[5] David Sutton, A Chorus of Raspberries: British Film Comedy 1929-1939 (Exeter, 2000), p. 60.

[6] See Matt Houlbrook, ‘Lady Austin’s Camp Boys: Constituting the Queer Subject in 1930s London’, Gender and History 14.1 (2002), pp. 31-61; Houlbrook, Queer London.

[7] See Jacob Bloomfield, ‘Splinters: Cross-Dressing Ex-Servicemen on the Interwar Stage’, Twentieth Century British History 30.1 (2019), pp. 1-28.

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Girls’ Culture and the Girl’s Own Paper during the fin de siècle

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In an increasingly interconnected world, the mass media has impacted how many of us perceive ourselves. Growing up in the 2000s, aspects of my own identity have been shaped by my engagement with popular culture as a young girl. Reading magazines such as Girl Talk and Mizz, I developed a gender-based identity defined by popular representations of what it means to be a girl. 

Featuring fashion advice, celebrity gossip, and real-life stories of readers, girls’ magazines of the 21st century are loaded with gender assumptions that mark them as quite different from boys’ reading material. As a historian interested in gender issues, I am drawn to explore how understandings of gender roles have shaped ‘modern’ society and, in particular, how the media has defined gender-based identities in Britain.

It was in the final decades of the 19th century that girlhood began to be regarded as an important stage in life, one with its own distinct culture, located in between, but separated from both childhood and adulthood.[1] This point of view formed part of a reaction to popular anxieties about ‘modernity’ and its potential to create social and moral disorder, with gender considered a category through which this disorder could manifest itself. The image of the ‘New Woman’, associated with growing independence and new opportunities for women in the 1890s, challenged the accepted ideal that the primary responsibilities of women and girls were in the home. Importance was therefore placed on girlhood, a time during which young women were taught the acceptable boundaries of their gender.

Starting out as a penny weekly in 1880, the Girl’s Own Paper is just one example of the numerous periodicals of the fin de siècle which stressed gender dichotomies to its readers.[2] As the most popular and longest running periodical of its kind, the Girl’s Own is an important historical source for understanding how modern girls’ culture has evolved.

Containing nonfiction articles, stories, and a regular correspondence section, in its pages the Girl’s Own crafted its own vision of acceptable girlhood. Between 1880 and 1900, several articles in the paper expressed the need for girls to follow the traditional obligations of their sex. Readers were encouraged to live by traditional feminine values and were exposed to advertisements for household products, soaps, sewing materials, and other domestic necessities.[3]Stories also explicitly warned girls that to follow in the footsteps of the ‘New Woman’ would inevitably lead to unhappy spinsterhood.[4]

In an ever-growing market of gendered periodicals, however, the Girl’s Own also accepted the need to discuss more progressive ideas on girlhood in order to remain popular with readers. By the turn of the century, an increasing number of informative articles appeared on matters such as higher education and work opportunities. The justification given for such articles was that these were a response to the large number of girls requesting advice on ‘new departures, new training, and new careers’.[5]

Advertisements for leisure pursuits also allowed for a more ‘modern’ vision of girlhood to be represented. Products were marketed as being suitable for ‘lawn tennis, badminton, and croquet wear’, activities associated with modern representations of girlhood which distinguished fin de siècle girls from older generations.[6]

In 1890, however, readers were reminded to ‘enjoy your lawn tennis; but remember the obligations of your sex and your self respect’.[7] This phrasing summarises well the tone used in the Girl’s Own between 1880 and 1900, as traditional ideas on girlhood and femininity were renegotiated alongside the opportunities of modern life. The author cautioning readers to ‘remember [their] obligations’ demonstrated both tolerance for the new opportunities available to girls, such as new leisure pursuits like lawn tennis, and an awareness of the simultaneous opening-up of new educational and professional fields. Nevertheless, it was also stressed that these new opportunities should be enjoyed in moderation. An image of the ideal reader was thus created within the magazine which embodied the Christian, and traditionally feminine values of the magazine’s publisher but which also considered the demands of its readership. 

Many girls engaged in the correspondence of the magazine, and anticipated a reply from their ‘dear, faithful friend’, the editor.[8] This was yet another way in which the magazine acted as a tool with which its consumers formed understandings of their own lives and of the world around them. Experiences and understandings at such a fundamental life stage—girlhood—shaped the readers’ worldview on their way to adulthood. 

In today’s society, the mass media still acts as a vehicle with which individual identities are shaped and connected. More than a hundred years on, possibilities have increased exponentially, not only through the printed word but also because of the endless opportunities which the internet provides. The rise of social media is reflective of an increasingly globalised society, in which individuals can connect on deeper and more meaningful levels than earlier printed periodicals could provide. Yet, these older forms of communication remain important and relevant sources. They can teach us much about how our society has evolved, and how gender ideals which still exist today have been negotiated and understood in the past.

Laura Neilson is a recent graduate of the University of Sheffield, holding an MA in Modern History. She is particularly interested in gender history, and in making history accessible to the public.

Cover image: Masthead illustration for the Girl’s Own Paper in an 1886 edition. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] K. Moruzi, Constructing Girlhood through the periodical press, 1850-1918 (Ashgate, 2012), p.9; S. Mitchell, The New Girl: Girls’ Culture in England, 1880-1915 (Columbia University Press, 1995), pp.1-3.

[2] D. Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (Routledge, 2013), p.18.

[3] “Multiple Classified Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd September 1881, p.3.

[4] “Varieties”, Girl’s Own Paper, 6th October 1894.

[5] Lily Watson, “What is the London County Council doing for Girls?”, Girl’s Own Paper, 27th February 1897, p.4.

[6] “Multiple Display Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd January 1880, p.4.

[7] S.F.A Caulfield, “Some Types of Girlhood; or, Our Juvenile Spinsters”, Girl’s Own Paper, 4th October 1890, p.5.

[8] “A Dip Into the Editor’s Correspondence”, Girl’s Own Paper, 16th June 1883, p.6.

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From Popular Culture to Culture War: Free Speech and the British Press

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In recent years, debates about ‘free speech’ have become ever-present in politics and the media, central to what has been called a ‘culture war’. Responding to this situation, a recent volume that assembles a diverse group of commentators, activists and academics – including a chapter from myself – focuses on what it calls The Free Speech Wars.

It examines how speech has and has not been controlled both historically and today, and the ways in which the concept of free speech has been weaponised or deployed as a bad faith argument by those wishing to commit harm. In the introduction, the volume’s editor, Charlotte Lydia Riley, summarises some of the insights the book offers, arguing:

“that free speech is often only available to those who are already powerful; that the people who shout the loudest about their speech being denied are still, at the end of the day, the ones whose voices carry the furthest. Freedom of speech is an essential right and a powerful duty, but it is not the only thing that matters”.

My own chapter explores these themes by examining one particular case study: the British press. This is an important subject as the press has both a vested interest in the debate due to the criticism the industry receives for its own harmful practices, and because the press is a major platform in which arguments about free speech take place and where ideas and rhetorical slogans are crafted and popularised.

The notion of freedom has been central to how the British press has presented itself ever since the emergence of what are recognisable as ‘newspapers’ in the seventeenth century. At that time it was undoubtedly an existential concern, given the efforts of the British state to censor what could be printed.[1] Famous figures such as John Wilkes became symbols of the need to fight for free speech, and the press has long presented itself as the ‘Fourth Estate’, with a supposed duty to hold the powerful to account.

Yet the context has changed immensely in the intervening centuries. From a time when a small number of journalists and publications were truly radical voices speaking to a relatively small number of readers, by the end of the nineteenth century a mass press had emerged.

With readerships reaching into the millions, owned by wealthy figures such as the press barons, and with links to powerful interests in the spheres of politics and business, the press itself – particularly the largest and most influential newspapers – now wielded immense power. Moreover, the majority of the press remained resolutely right-wing politically, which remains the case today.

With such large circulations, newspapers were able to set the agenda and pressurise politicians. This mass press was also a key element in the emergence of a ‘popular culture’, as important as books, films or music. Newspapers played a vital role in crafting notions of ‘common sense’ and a political and cultural language for their readers.

This new state of affairs begged the question – who would hold the press itself to account?

The central character of debates about press freedom changed during the twentieth century, with the 1960s serving as a pivotal moment. Beforehand, debates about free speech and the press tended to focus on notions of morality, respectability and obscenity, and the tone of newspaper’s critiques of authority figures. Afterwards, debates about press freedom tended to centre on the press’s representation of disadvantaged groups, whether this concerned stereotyping and discrimination or issues of privacy and intrusion into the personal sphere.

The longstanding demonisation of migrants and ethnic minorities in the pages of many of the most high-profile British newspapers, especially the tabloids, is one obvious example. Another is the News of the World’s notorious practice of phonehacking, also likely utilised by other newspapers. This targeted not just celebrities, but also regular members of the public who had been thrust into the public eye, such as the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The press duly wheeled out all of the old arguments about free speech, the freedom of the press and the Fourth Estate. Newspapers presented themselves as the victims, ignoring the ways in which they had used their power and influence to harm others, their unethical – and even illegal – practices, and their frequent disregard for factual accuracy.

Although the phonehacking scandal led to the closure of the News of the World and some brief jailtime for a small number of perpetrators, most of those involved escaped censure and the Sun on Sunday was quickly launched by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK to replace the News of the World. Most damningly, the new industry regulator, IPSO, was again set up as a vehicle of self-regulation like its predecessors – and has been chaired by figures from News UK such as former political editor of the Sun, Trevor Kavanagh.

Murdoch has been central to another factor in ‘free speech’ becoming a central focus of much of the British press. His media organisations straddle both sides of the Atlantic (and far beyond). Much as Fox News has hosted reactionaries utilising notionally liberal values such as freedom and ‘free speech’ to provide cover for their regressive and discriminatory views and activities, so too have Murdoch’s newspapers in the UK – the Sun, The Times, and the Sunday Times.

This is part of a broader press environment where culture-war rhetoric has flourished, with constant alarmist articles about ‘snowflakes’ and PC culture, no-platforming and other supposed attacks against free speech on university campuses, and disingenuous claims that calling out racism, misogyny and homophobia is now the real bigotry and a threat to freedom – all of which are examined in The Free Speech Wars.

The history of the British press across the last century and a half has exemplified a broader societal shift from popular culture to culture war – and although the manner in which notions of free speech have been utilised has changed, they remain potent rhetorical tools. Free speech is a vitally important issue, especially at a time when authoritarianism is rising around the world and journalists in many countries are targeted with violence. The press is also clearly home to a diverse range of voices, including on the issue of free speech.

But the appeals to free speech offered by the press in Britain need to be treated with suspicion given the industry’s long history of hypocrisy over the issue and the various ways it has sought to weaponize the concept to justify its commercial imperatives and unethical behaviour. You can read my full chapter in the book for a more detailed account of how this unfolded.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley.

The Free Speech Wars is available now from Manchester University Press.


Cover image: A pile of newspapers secured with an iron chain.

[1] K. Williams, Read All About It!: A History of the British Newspaper (London, 2010), chs 1-3.

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‘Illegitimate’ Cultures: from the Music Hall to the Rave

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At first glance, mid-Victorian entertainment culture and the current ‘illegal’ rave scene of Covid-Britain may appear wildly incomparable. But the early Victorian period, as illustrated by the cultural division between the ‘music hall’ and ‘legitimate theatre’ was pivotal in cementing the division between ‘illegitimate’ and ‘legitimate’ culture. Understanding the historical drivers behind these definitions of culture is crucial to disentangling contemporary ‘public health’ policy from the influence of ‘moral panic.’  Distinguishing between the two can reveal the broader influence of dominant class anxieties about cultures which appear to challenge economic or social ‘norms’, of which early music hall and rave culture are both examples. 

The summer of 2020 witnessed stark contradictions in public health messages and policies.  Whilst an inevitable wave of ‘illegal’ outdoor rave gatherings were condemned and supressed by police forces, simultaneously the public were being encouraged (and subsidised) to ‘eat out’ in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being widely deemed a greater danger for viral transmission. This speaks volumes about the push to maintain the ideology of ‘legitimate culture’, defined by its relationship to free market economics (to which restaurant culture is wedded) as being more important than the scientific realities of public health.  

The first organised and uniformed police force emerged in 1829, playing a key role in shaping ‘legitimate’ modes of culture in the newly expanding towns and cities of the Victorian era.  Arising from a middle-class fear of the expanding working classes, early policing was born out of a desire to impose discipline outside of the confines of the workplace upon sites of ‘unregulated’ leisure time –on the street or in the ale house. In the context of the Chartist movement of the 1830s, which saw mass demonstrations calling for wider enfranchisement, a fear of the ‘unruly crowd’ and its potential to challenge state power remained present throughout the century. 

The larger, more commercially minded ‘Music Hall’ venue emerged out of the smaller ale houses and singing saloons of the late 18th and early 19th century urban milieu. Often tied closely to the brewing industry, music halls were associated with drinking, smoking and less ‘respectable’ behaviour.  Their perceived lack of legitimacy, compared to ‘legitimate’ theatres, where smoking and drinking were forbidden, was solidified by the 1843 Theatres Act. This Act stipulated that only venues holding a Theatre License, appointed by the Lord Chamberlain, could legally perform plays or performances with a ‘strong narrative’. This distinction between the music hall and theatre reflected the increasing tendency from the Victorian era upon centralising state control over censorship. 

The Eat Out To Help Out scheme of the summer of 2020 encouraged and subsidised the public to gather in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being deemed dangerous for viral transmission. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/8pc6VvR0gJs, Photographer: Nick Fewings

Associated with large gatherings in rural locations, a large part of the anxiety that the rave scene is associated with may stem from its physical dislocation from the regulation and surveillance of the urban space, a legacy that can be traced back to Victorian policing. It has been argued that the government night time economy policies of the 1990s, which sought to replace rave culture with tighter social controls, explicitly took aim at rave culture, driving it into commercial club spaces that could be regulated through licensing, rendering rave more visible and therefore subject to greater monitoring in the public sphere. 

Furthermore, unlike the Victorian music hall and ‘legitimate’ theatre, rave culture possesses neither a stake in broader social nor in economic capital, existing (largely) outside of the regulated entertainment industry. This helps to explain rave culture’s consistent suppression following its height during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Passed in response to the infamous rave at Castle Morton in 1992, the 1994 ‘Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’ gave sweeping powers to stop unlicensed gatherings of more than a hundred people, with an emphasis on supressing events which played loud music with ‘repetitive beats’ – an extremely unsubtle reference to rave culture. 

A telling quote from a raver involved in the scene of the time mentions the class politics at play in suppressing particular cultures, as well as the relationship between ‘legitimate’ culture and free-market economics: ‘If it had been a big event, [which] had been staged [and] had cost thousands of pounds it would have been all right[..]But because it was poor people, with no money, doing something they haven’t been granted permission for, suddenly it was the crime of the century.’ 

Unlike rave culture, Music Hall would eventually become more accepted through its increasing ‘commercialisation’ during the later 19th century as a national entertainment industry. Conscious attempts were made to prove Music Hall’s legitimacy through self-censorship, curating more ‘respectable’ content, and deploying surveillance to regulate crowd behaviour, as demonstrated by numerous statements on theatre bill posters proclaiming police would be ‘in attendance.’ 

Whether we understand or support the rave scene or not, ‘rave culture is culture.’  It is possible to be both critical of the public health practices of rave events (as indeed even many within the scene have been), as well as considering it a culture in all its complexity (for what is culture without its contradictions and problematic aspects?) 

Taking leisure culture, including rave culture seriously, brings into question the role of the state, and how it has historically influenced and enforced cultural norms, through both legislation and use of police force.  In both the music hall and rave culture, state suspicion and regulation has stemmed from a mistrust of forms of mass leisure that have risen ‘from below’; rave culture’s continued suppression, however, is in part due to its explicit refusal to ‘commercialise’ and become ‘respectable’ in the way that music hall did. In light of a recent investigation into a raver in Bristol being mauled by a police dog, asking serious questions about whose culture is given ‘legitimacy’, and the public health implications for this in the physical realm, has never been more pertinent.  

Izzy Hadlum is currently a History Masters student at the University of Sheffield.  Her research deals with entertainment culture in Mid-Victorian Sheffield, with a focus on the dynamic between respectability and class across Music Hall and Theatre.   

Cover Image: ‘Rave culture is culture’. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/EHWtxXpiDD0, photographer: Dima Pechurin

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British Imperial Revival in the Early Cold War: The Malayan ‘Emergency’ 1948-60

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As we gain perspective on a summer of global protest, it is clear that the traditional narrative of British colonial history is being questioned by the public at large. The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in July represents a direct challenge to conventional histories of the beginnings of the British empire in the seventeenth century. But what of the end of empire?

Following the Second World War Britain declined as a world power, dwarfed by the bi-polar superpower colossi of the United States and the USSR and hamstrung by the inexorable disappearance of her imperial possessions. The sun of Empire, we are told, set across the world.[1]

From this perspective, British power and influence declined in relative terms. However, as recent research based on the ever-increasing release of official records has shown, this interpretation misses crucial discontinuities in the historical record. Recent scholarship by John Newsinger argues that Clement Attlee’s Labour government was as much a resurgent colonial warfare state as a domestic welfare state in the immediate postwar years.[2] Anne Deighton argues that Britain’s role in ideological battlegrounds of the nascent Cold War is demonstrably greater than traditional interpretations have suggested.[3] 

One concrete example of postwar Britain as a colonial Cold Warrior state is the Malayan Emergency of 1948-60. The conflict has been described by Malaysian-born anthropologist Yao Souchou as ‘a small, distant war’ not for its inconsequentiality in global affairs, but for its relegation to the side-lines of the historiography of the Cold War.[4] Bringing the conflict to the forefront of our attention, I believe, challenges the broad narrative of postwar ‘decline’ and demonstrates the continued international influence of the British state in the post-war period.

The ‘Emergency’ was the longest conflict fought by British forces in the twentieth century. With the aim of achieving national independence, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) fought a bitter campaign of insurgency against the British colonial government of Malaya and its local and Commonwealth allies. Despite their determined (and British-supported) resistance to wartime Japanese occupation, the MCP were ultimately defeated. More than just a decisive victory for the British empire, the campaign in Malaya was in fact the only conclusive military success by the Western powers in the entirety of the Cold War period.[5]

THE BRITISH ARMY IN MALAYA, 1957 (HU 51581) Men of the 48th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action against a terrorist hide-out near Segri Sembilan, Malaya. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205216100 [Accessed 22 November 2020]

Because of its abundant tin and rubber resources, Malaya, according to the British Colonial Sectary, was ‘by far the most important source of dollars in the Colonial Empire’.[6] With the British economy profoundly weakened by the loss of the former Indian territories, further capitulation in Asia was simply not acceptable. Although Marshall Plan aid chiefly funded Britain’s extensive (and expensive) programmes of urban revival and welfare reforms, a direct consequence of the economic recovery of ‘the West’ was the continuation of European colonialism for another two decades.[7]

The release of classified Foreign Office files has expanded our understanding of Britain’s propaganda machine in the early Cold War period. The intent of the Information Research Department (IRD) to promote Britain as a socialist ‘Third Force’ in world politics via its attacks on the Soviet Union and Communism is only now being adequately explored.[8] These offensive tactics were mirrored by a defensive approach to events in Malaya. Repeating the rhetoric used to describe the Jewish Irgun and Lehi in Palestine, British state propaganda relied on the dual euphemism of the ‘banditry’ of Malayan Communist rebels and the ‘emergency’ of their anti-colonial independence war in international representations of the conflict.[9]

The conflict was presented as arising from an international communist movement. It was done so with nuance: too strong a line could further align the Malayan Chinese ethnic group with the MCP; the opposite could have given the impression that the British were crushing a true nationalist movement. After the proclamation of American anti-colonial policy in the 1947 Truman Doctrine, the chief aim of British propaganda was to ‘manipulate the American colossus’ into thinking that political and economic support of an archaic colonial regime was ‘the corollary of [Communist] containment’.[10] To this, end, as the war continued, international British propaganda utilised the carefully chosen term ‘Communist terrorists’ in their representations of the MCP.[11]

In terms of national propaganda, a great deal of scholarly attention is often given to the figure of Sir Gerald Templer. Serving as Director of Operations and High Commissioner of Malaya from 1951 to 1954, his view that ‘the answer [to defeating the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle but in the hearts and minds of the [Malayan] people’ has dominated conventional historical analysis of the conflict.[12] A defining component of contemporary ‘cultural Cold War’ strategies, we must remain wary of attributing the ‘hearts and minds’ metaphor too much importance in Britain’s victory over the MCP. Indeed, the position of Templer as a semi-mythic figure in the historiography of the conflict simultaneously empowers the actions of the Western elite and obscures the reality of the counter-insurgency tactics the British utilised throughout the conflict.

THE MALAYAN EMERGENCY 1948-1960 (D 87947) Men of 22 Special Air Service Regiment practice carrying a casualty to a waiting helicopter during a training exercise in a jungle clearing at Ulu Langat, near Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212427 [Accessed 20 November 2020]

Based on racially motivated colonial attitudes exemplified by events of the 1948 Batang Kali massacre, Bennett argues that mass arrests, deportation and destruction of property corresponded to a deliberate British campaign of ‘counter-terror’.[13] The forced re-settlement of over 500,000 Malayans in ‘New Villages’ with the ostensible aim of removing Communist influence were in fact little more than concentration camps built to keep the rural Chinese population under strict surveillance and control.[14] The tactics employed by the British state against the MCP demonstrated a resolve to maintain dominance of the colonial periphery by often brutal means.

A colonial attitude of imperial retrenchment, implemented through and influencing a nascent Cold War framework, saw Malaya as a continued source of colonial power for the British state. Britain successfully re-imposed colonial order by armed intervention, protecting its markets and control of natural resources essential to economic recovery. An extensive and influential network of regional intelligence informed international and national propaganda strategies to manipulate public opinion with the objective of the furtherance of British colonial Cold War objectives. Brutal and systematic detention, deportation and violence facilitated the crushing of the MCP revolt.

The summer of 2020 has shown the power of challenging traditionally idolised historical figures from the beginnings of the British empire. Similarly, a revisionist interpretation of the Malayan Emergency makes it clear that in postwar South-East Asia, there was no gracefully setting sun.

Liam Raine is an MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, currently researching the metaphorical structures of the Cold War. This blog piece is based on an essay written in submission for the module HST674 ‘International Relations and the Early Cold War in Britain’. For those interested in the longer research project, please contact Liam at liamandrewraine@gmail.com.


Cover image: A Malayan guide passes tracking information to the British sergeant of an infantry patrol during the Malayan Emergency. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212424 [Accessed 22 November 2020].

[1] L. James, ‘Part Five: The Setting Sun’ in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York, 2006), pp. 523-622.

[2] J. Newsinger, ‘War, Empire and the Attlee government 1945-51’, Race & Class, 60.1 (2018), pp. 61-67.

[3] A. Deighton, ‘Britain and the Cold War’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), pp. 112-32.

[4] S. Yao, The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a small, distant war (Copenhagen, 2016).

[5] B. Z. Keo, ‘A small, distant war?’, History Compass 17.3 (2019), pp. 1-2.

[6] Memo, by Colonial Secretary, 1 July 1948, C.P. (48) 171, CAB 129/25.

[7] W. I. Hitchcock, ‘The Marshall Plan and the creation of the West’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), p. 162; O. A. Westad, The Cold War: A World History (New York, 2017), p. 265.

[8] H. Wilford, ‘The Information Research Department: Britain’s secret Cold War weapon revealed’, Review of International Studies 24.3 (1998), pp. 353-69.

[9] S. L. Carruthers, Winning Hearts and Minds (Leicester, 1995).

[10] J. Darwin, ‘Diplomacy and decolonization’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 28.3 (2000), p. 16.

[11] P. Deery, ‘The terminology of terrorism: Malaya, 1948-1952’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.2 (2003), pp. 241-47.

[12] R. Clutterbuck, The long, long war (London, 1967), p. 3; R. Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (London, 1966).

[13] H. Bennett, ‘“A very salutary effect”’, Journal of Strategic Studies 32.3 (2009), pp. 415-44.

[14] T.-P. Tan, ‘Like a concentration camp, lah’: Chinese grassroots experience of the Emergency and New Villages in British Colonial Malaya’, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies 3 (2009), pp.216-28.

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