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The rowdyism and brutality of the uneducated and ill-bred

Tuesday 30 July 2013

As I was searching for references to the Merrie England in the Australian newspapers, I turned up a piece of moralising tit­il­ation which connected that steam yacht with stories of Victorian scandals. The commentary was prompted by the death and life of George Baird, one of Lillie Langtry’s lovers, but it also mentioned Mr Bailey for whom the Merrie England was originally built.

On the left, ‘Mr Abingdon’ (caricature of George Alexander Baird) from Vanity Fair, 6 October 1888 [wikimedia]; on the right, ‘A Jersey Lily’ (portrait of Lillie Langtry) by John Everett Millais [wikimedia].

The piece was printed in the Melbourne Argus of 6 May 1893, set in one breath­less paragraph in the middle of a gossip-col­umn. I have cut it into chunks for easier reading:

VANITY FAIR
By J.M.D.
London, March 29

[Three paragraphs snipped: a piece of political gossip, art exhibition reviews, a divorce]

The memory of Mr G Abington Baird [sic] is still kept fresh by rumours of lawsuits and complications arising out of his will. The latest version of the affair is that Baird made a will leaving Mrs Langtry £50,000 a year, but forgot to sign it. Of course, even the public rumour that the lady has nar­row­ly escaped receiving £50,000 a year so very easily must be exceedingly fascinating.

The press generally has been rather savage in criticism of the deceased youth. The Daily Chronicle makes him a text for a coarse and vin­dic­tive stump oration about the vices of the propertied classes and the aristocracy. Of course Abing­ton Baird’s manners and customs and whole career were simply the re­cru­des­cence in the third generation of sheer rowdyism and bru­tal­i­ty in­her­ited from ancestors who were uneducated, drunk­en, brutal colliers and quarrymen. His craze for whisky and for beating women was thus in­her­ited. He had far more in common with the “lucky digger” of the early alluvial gold-mining days in Australia fifty years ago than with the Duke of Hamilton, the late Earls of West­moreland and Stamford and Warrington, Sir John Stanley, of Hooton, and other famous spendthrifts of aristocratic birth.

The fact is that the Baird type​—​minus the jockeyship​—​is exceedingly common, especially in the North of England. Fortunes are suddenly made there by working people, by very poor people, much offener than is supposed. Now and then this sort of thing will happen​—​the father, a working man, makes a lot of money, say out of some successful patent; he and his wife then proceed to drink themselves to death with great ce­ler­i­ty, and the son comes in for the fortune. As a rule, the first thing he does is to buy, or order, a large steam yacht to take his pals about in.

That fine steam vessel, “The Merrie En­gland,” which is at the service of Sir William Mac­Gregor, the administrator of New Guinea, had such an origin as this. The youngster who ordered it “bust up” before it was completed, and the Treasury bought “The Merrie England,” a great bargain, from the ship-builders.

A few years ago a young fellow called Brooke, the son of a working man who had suddenly grown enormously rich by some lucky speculation, made a tremendous splash for a while in the West End. He used to give large supper parties, at which there was nothing whatever to eat, but illimitable supplies of champagne and cigars. He is dead.


[Five more paragraphs snipped: review of a public lecture, death of the Duke of Bedford, birthday of a war cor­re­spon­dent, a society wedding, a diplomatic appointment]

image of a postage stamp

Papua New Guinea postage stamp with an image of the government steam yacht Merrie England, one of a series of stamps issued in 1987 that illus­trated ships with historical connections with PNG.

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