Useful, Beautiful, Toxic

Jesse Oak Taylor’s recent article in Novel makes a bold claim about modelling, realism, and the project of representation. He suggests that Dickens’ novel “performs a kind of fictional ‘greenhouse effect’ in which the real is severed from its stabilizing lifeline to the natural, giving way to the paradoxically artificial nature of the Anthropocene” (1). Among the things I learned from reading it was the range of Victorian attitudes to urban pollution, including the belief “that coal smoke could be beneficial in combating [the] noxious vapours…killing off the organic components of miasma, sterilizing the fog” emanating from the natural marshes upon which London sat (13). I’m skeptical that very many Victorians held this view—every era has its fringe theorists—but Taylor’s article supports the view that Victorians were deeply aware of and interested in the effects of their industrial lives upon the landscape.

I was reading Taylor’s article, because I’ve been thinking lately about mining and extraction economies. That interest comes out of my work on William Morris, whose family wealth derived from a 25% stake in the Devon Great Consols (DGC) mine near Tavistock. According to Morris’s biographer J.W. Mackail, Morris’s father, a moderately successful bill-broker in the City, came into these 272 shares in lieu of payment for a debt (Mackail 21). The DGC would soon become the largest copper mine in Europe, making the Morrises very rich. When the price of copper crashed in the 1860s, the mine turned to processing arsenic, until then considered an unwanted byproduct of the copper extraction. The arsenic production was almost as profitable; when William Morris came of age and inherited 13 shares (about 1% of the company), they provided him with an annual dividend of over £700 (about £38,000 in 2013 terms). That inheritance he used to set up his design firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company (which would become Morris & Co.).

Poisoning by Green-Paper Hangings

Now one of the interesting uses of arsenic in the mid-Victorian economy was as a pigment in, among other things, wallpaper. Of course, it was also pretty poisonous—a fact becoming increasingly obvious by the 1860s. In this regard, one of the first cases to attract significant public notice was the death of Clarence W. King in 1860, aged three and a half years. The Daily News reported on the matter on 17 November 1860. The paper solemnly named the subject “one of considerable importance,” because the coroner concluded the boy died from “the inhalation of arsenical fumes which had escaped from the green paper of a certain sitting room.” What makes the case interesting is that the jury at the inquest declared “the manufacturer of such paper had been guilty of very careless and culpable conduct.” The King case in 1860 did not result in any criminal or civil proceedings against the unnamed manufacturer, but the “child(ren) poisoned by green-paper hangings” were something of a meme in the next decade of newspaper records.

You can see where this is going—yes, William Morris’s wallpapers made heavy use of green pigment derived from the arsenic produced by his family’s mine. In fact Morris served as a director of the DGC for many years. While he did resign his directorship in 1876 it’s doubtful he did so out of concern over the public health or environmental risks attached to arsenic. At least, that’s the argument put forward by Andy Meharg, in an article published in Nature in 2003.

Trellis wallpaper, designed by William Morris in 1862; first issued 1864 Block printed in distemper colours on paper. Printed by Jeffrey & Co. for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Museum no. E.452-1919. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE V&A MUSEUM.

Dr Meharg, a biologist, analyzed a small piece of  “Trellis” wallpaper and confirmed not only that it contained arsenic pigment, but that the source of the arsenic was the DGC. In support of his case, Dr Meharg cites a letter from Morris to Morris & Co.’s dye manufacturer written in 1885, a decade after Morris divested his interest in DGC. There, Morris is responding to a letter from a concerned customer. He rejects the concerns of the medical professions and popular press about arsenic pigments, declaring “As to the arsenic scare, a greater folly is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were being bitten by witch fever.” A second letter three days later stated: “Of course it is proving too much to prove that the Nicholsons were poisoned by wall-papers; for if they were a great number of people would be in the same plight and we should be sure to hear of it.”

So while some Morris aficionados—especially those who want to see him as a proto-environmentalist—have tried to rescue his reputation, it seems clear that (a) Morris knew arsenic was poisonous; (b) knew that his company used arsenic pigments in its wallpaper; and (c) refused to do anything substantial about it.

Personally, I find the disparity between (some of) William Morris’s actions and (some of) William Morris’s ideals appealing. I don’t like my Victorians saintly. Better they contradict themselves, revealing their self-contained multitudes. And Morris is hardly the only Victorian with a conflicted relationship to resource extraction. Unlike the industrial mill, which because of its high visibility led nearly every middle-class Victorian to form a strong opinion, the mines received less scrutiny.

To give an example, consider Anthony Trollope’s Three Clerks. (n.b. whenever I need an example of the middling middlebrow middle classes, Trollope’s my man!). Early in the novel, Alaric Tudor is handpicked to inspect and report on a controversial mining project that is beginning to encroach on Crown property. Before his trip, he visits bucolic Hampton to attend upon the Woodwards, whose three daughters will form the jumbled love interest of the novel’s titular three clerks (this post does NOT endorse Trollope’s crude plotting). The arriviste Tudor at Hampton court (this post does NOT endorse Trollope’s crude symbolism) entertains questions about his upcoming trip, which reveal how little these characters know about mining business:

‘And what on earth is it that you are to do down in the mines?’ asked Mrs. Woodward as they sat together in the evening.

‘Nothing on the earth, Mrs. Woodward—it is to be all below the surface, forty fathom deep,’ said Alaric.

‘Take care that you ever come up again,’ said she.

‘They say the mine is exceedingly rich—perhaps I may be tempted to stay down there.’

‘Then you’ll be like the gloomy gnome, that lives in dark, cold mines,’ said Katie.

‘Isn’t it very dangerous, going down into those places?’ asked Linda.

‘Men go down and come up again every day of their lives, and what other men can do, I can, I suppose.’

The exchange is revealing: the metaphorical register is drawn from a child’s fairy tale world of gnomes and treasure. The Woodwards, designed by Trollope to represent a typical bourgeois family, are basically ignorant on the practicalities of mining. What matters to them is the cultural capital of Alaric Tudor’s appointment. All agree that it is “a great thing for so young a man to have been selected for such employment.” As the novel progresses, Alaric Tudor eventually visits the mine and, in doing so, lifts the veil on the “realities” of mineral extraction for Trollope’s Victorian readers. In this, Anthony Trollope belongs to a tradition of novelists who, I think, use mines to represent the Victorian political unconscious.

I’m taking liberties with Fredric Jameson’s term, but I can’t help but think that mines are the counterpoint to the factory in nineteenth-century culture. Unlike the factory, whose dramatic appearance on the English landscape interrupts and upsets traditional notions of land, space, and social order in ways that commanded either negative attention (think of the “dark satanic mills” in Blake’s “The New Jerusalem”) or straight-out repression (think of the “wreaths of smoke/ Sent up, in silence, from among the trees” in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”), the mine is largely invisible.

But if the mine is largely out of sight, it’s never quite out of mind. The importance of mineral extraction—especially collieries—to England’s economy being constant over the nineteenth-century, it’s unsurprising that mining projects appear regularly in Victorian fiction. Sometimes they take positions of prominence, as in Condition of England novels like Sybil or imperial romances like King Solomon’s Mines. More often, they are part of the background noise, like the Peruvian mines that left Mrs Pipchin a widow in Dombey and Son, or the coal pits of Sproxton where the eponymous Felix Holt cuts his teeth as a political radical in George Eliot’s novel. The complex and awkward responses to the subterranean presence fascinate me.

Fellow Floaters (that’s better than Floaties, right?), what are your favourite mining tales? The more obscure, the better!

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3 thoughts on “Useful, Beautiful, Toxic

  1. Eddy, this is really cool stuff. I think you’re on to something in this post about the invisibility of mines in the Victorian imagination. Your post has got me thinking about how so much of our current social theory privileges built spaces of industry or transportation — those spectacles of commerce such as railway stations, corporate offices, schools, hospitals, etc. Marc Auge’s work on the non-spaces of our current “hypermodern” world has always seemed to work in my thinking about Victorian representations of railway stations, but now I’m thinking about how the concept of the non-space, or even Foucault’s heterotopia, might relate to such unseen built environments as the Victorian mine, if it all. Do we need a new lexicon of ideas to understand such environments? Dickens’s fascination with railway tunnels sounds like a good place to start, but I can’t remember if he ever reported about excursions into mines in his journalism.

    • “Unseen built environments” is a provocative phrase, Daniel, because it draws attention to class, labour and the idea of the Victorian public. Dim lighting aside, the mines and other underground built environments *were* seen–just not by everybody. In fact, there are entire groups of labourers who spent the majority of their waking lives underground. The Morlocks of *The Time Machine* probably need to be thought of in this context. In fact, the mine is one of the few Victorian spaces, surely, of class purity (the managerial classes tended to stay aboveground). I’ll admit ignorance on Dickens reporting on visits to any mines, but I totally agree with your suggestion that we need a new lexicon.

  2. This is a fascinating post, Eddy. (Unlike you, though, I have to admit that I feel a little disappointed at the distance between Morris’s ideals and actions. I guess I do like my Victorians saintly).

    When I consider your thoughts about the invisibility of mines in the Victorian cultural landscape, the various representations of colliers/miners in Victorian photography come to mind, whether Munby’s in-studio images or images taken on-site (images that I’m sure I’ve seen before but can’t seem to immediately google into existence…).

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