The Strange World of Arthur Munby

Like Hugh Shimmin and Henry Mayhew, Arthur Munby was a well-heeled gentleman who liked to observe Victorian society’s lower reaches. But unlike them Munby was not a professional investigator who published his findings, indeed he stipulated that his papers should be kept locked-up until forty years after his death. This was because they were full of writings, drawings and photographs that (whilst not being positively pornographic) fetishised labouring women. I am currently reading Munby: Man of Two Worlds (Derek Hudson, 1972) and think that this eccentric individual’s writings deserve to be more widely known.

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A.J. Munby with collier Ellen Grounds at a Wigan photographer’s, 1873

Arthur Munby (1828-1910) was a barrister and civil servant (also a minor poet and rather iffy sketcher) who lived an ostensibly bachelor life in London. But such was his fascination with women who earned a physically hard living that he secretly married one of them – a maidservant named Hannah Cullwick – and henceforth lived a sort of double life. He kept detailed diaries which, on one level, chronicle a privileged life spent in predominantly male artistic and literary circles, wherein he rubbed shoulders with the creative great and good. But he also records a concealed existence in which, hiding behind his big beard and guileless manner, he roamed on his own freely and struck-up conversations and acquaintanceships with lower class women. Naturally his intentions in doing so were routinely misinterpreted, though he does seem to have been genuinely innocent of soliciting sexual relations. Again unlike Shimmin and Mayhew, who largely presented themselves as passive spectators of the low-life they portrayed, Munby puts himself at the centre of the action he describes.

In the summer of 1859, for instance, Munby travelled alone to Boulogne, apparently for the sole purpose of coming across female objects of interest on the beach and quayside. He sees ‘strong brown bathing women…sat on their benches by the roadside knitting…their bare wet legs crossed idly, their big feet buried in the sand…’. He watches with admiration as female porters haul heavy luggage off an incoming boat. He falls in with a group of mussel gatherers and considers that ‘to stand in the middle of a knot of fine young women with brown bare limbs, coarse wet seafaring clothes, faces full of health and spirits, and nothing about them to remind you of the women you have met in London drawingrooms is refreshing…’. One fishergirl particularly catches his eye: ‘As she stood there leaning on her shrimp net…wet through from the armpits downwards, the water dripping from her red kilt and glazing the brown of her shapely legs, I regretted much that I had not brought my sketch book.’ This girl’s elder sister draws Munby’s attention to how pretty her sibling is, and, though he does not take the apparently proffered solicitation, the women do successfully importune him for ‘sous’. At one point he pays a fisherwoman to carry him on her back through a puddle of seawater, to save his genteel attire from a soaking. One feels that he is often seen in such situations as a figure of fun, as well as a potential source of financial largesse.

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‘Female Mudlark’: Drawn by Munby from life

And sometimes Munby gets more than he wants or expects. Back in London, in 1860, he goes to see ‘a masquerade of a very singular character at the Victoria Theatre. The ball took place on the stage, the house itself being densely crowded with spectators of the lowest class, many of them young women – orange girls, coster girls, servants and the like.’ He sits in a private stage box, but ‘to me entered two uninteresting young women, rather tawdrily dressed, one of whom, though not at all immodest, paid me the most unnecessary & undesired attention.’

His narrative is often informatively unconventional. When he goes to a posh ball at Inverness Terrace he tells us nothing about the occasion itself, instead noting that ‘a kitchenwench was washing dishes in the scullery under the hall steps of a house, within a few doors of where the sumptuous young ladies…were disembarking from their carriages…’. On departing the ball in the small hours of the morning he falls in step with ‘a woman dressed like a coster girl, with a large empty basket on her arm, striding heavily along…’. She tells him that, to her, the hour is early rather than late, because she is commencing work by walking all the way from Shepherd’s Bush to Farringdon Market to buy watercress which she will then lug all the way back and sell from door-to-door. Munby reflects that she could not be more different from the girls he has just left in the ballroom, but thinks that ‘her companionship in its way was as interesting as theirs.’

He follows the careers of some of the women he acquaints and is capable of performing acts of disinterested kindness towards them, for instance when he obtains a mask for a beggar girl whose face is disfigured by illness. He first meets one girl, named Sarah Tanner, in the Strand when she is a maidservant. A year or so later he catches up with her in Regent Street when she is in ‘gorgeous apparel’, and is working by her own free choice as a prostitute. After several further encounters with her in this guise he eventually finds her in the Strand when, ‘She was stouter & healthier than ever, and was dressed, not professionally as a “lady”, but quietly & well, like a respectable upper servant.’ She tells him that she has used her immoral earnings to set herself up in a coffeehouse, and he subsequently takes it upon himself to visit the named premises to check out her story (which turns out to be true). This is not the only time that Munby seems to act the busybody. One day he takes an omnibus all the way out to Tooting, just to confirm a story he has heard that a tradesman there has a maidservant who is the daughter of a clergyman. He finds this to be correct, but dismisses the apparent incongruity on the basis that the clergyman was only ‘a dissenting preacher.’

Paradoxically, the Munby who so loves lower-class women is also a High-Church snob who is not afraid to disparage people who are ‘in trade’. At a ball in St James’s Hall he describes ‘a most sumptuous affair’, but laments that ‘the guests looked unworthy of all this luxury: the women were to a striking extent wanting in beauty, in grace of motion and manners, & even in the fine symmetry of make that one sees in real ladies.’ He adds, ‘I never saw so clearly that there is a real difference in physical and mental breeding, between these rich tradesmen’s families – for they were all of that class, nearly – and those above them.’ At the Crystal Palace (the building was relocated to South London from Hyde Park after the Great Exhibition in 1851) he is sniffy about ‘holiday people’ who he thinks ‘not refined, but blunted and vulgarized still more by eating sandwiches (and they will eat sandwiches) on the tombs of Kings, and drinking pots of porter in the Courts of the Alhambra.’ (Such settings of antiquity were constructed as standing exhibits at the Crystal Place).

But it would be unfair not to mention that Munby’s diaries are illuminating on multiple aspects of Victorian life, beyond his snobbery and his fixation with labouring women. Indeed, he would probably have found our modern-day tendency to obsess over people’s sexuality equally strange. He commits a rather doleful prediction to his diary following a summer Sunday spent in the then still semi-rural environs of Guildford. He bemoans that ‘it was sad to see standing at an old time-honoured cottage door, a grey old peasant in his Sunday smock, with his strong hearty wife beside him, in her high cap and old-fashioned russet gown, whilst a couple of pert flimsy girls, in worthless garments of a pseudofashionable kind, stood talking to them, gaudy with ribbons and crinoline.’ He goes on to anticipate that industrial progress will eventually destroy all the ‘refreshing ruggedness’ and ‘charming differentia’ of country life, and laments that it will bring a sort of homogenous sameness to everyone. ‘God forbid that one should live to such a time,’ he writes, ‘when all England shall be one dead level of Americanised halfeducated vulgarity!’ How does this prediction sit in relation to our own times?

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2 Responses to The Strange World of Arthur Munby

  1. Nick Couldry says:

    A rum old chap, but an important obsever of his times nonetheless. Great blog!

  2. D Dempsey says:

    In Bedford Public Library in the 1980s I came across a blue-covered biography of this individual and stood skimming it for an hour or two, amazed by the secret marriage. I went home and told my husband (who was not encouraging) that I had found a book that I felt would make a very good subject as a tv play. However when I returned to the library to borrow the book for a closer consideration of its potential, it was not on the shelf, nor did it ever appear there again in the many more years I lived in the town.

    This week, upon being regaled by a friend reading a novel called “The Secret Wife”, it occurred to me to look up Munby on the internet. As a subject he now seems to me a rather a different and stranger kettle of fish than at the time of my first encounter with his unusual domestic arrangement; and his secret wife seems even more party to the arrangement than I had thought. Strangely too, since I was a mature student of sociology at the time of my original encounter, it had escaped my notice that individually and together Munby and Hannah were acting out all sorts of interesting and questionable social situations. From the obvious gender roles to consideration of the point of marriage, labour relations and division of labour, class and especially nature versus nurture.

    Even more disturbingly, it went right over my head that Munby was perhaps some sort of fetishist if not a downright pervert. The realisation only now dawns on me that that was more likely what he was hiding. Whereas I had assumed – and thought his wife (to use her title, for what it’s worth) had colluded – for the sake of social propriety. It was not the snobbery that fascinated me though – it was his readiness to continue to treat his wife as a servant and his wife’s ability to continue to play that role in front of (as I remember) his closest family and friends. Now I wonder whether his “abstract” interests in working women may in fact have simply been a symptom of some purely physical state that he did not feel able to share (or solve) with ladies as cultured as himself. Was he weird – or what?

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