‘The Gutta Percha Staff’
Between respectable and risqué satire in 1848
in Novelty fair
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The third and final chapter on 1848 investigates satires on the special constable: mainly middle-class volunteers who were sworn in to assist the police in keeping order on 10 April, the day of the Chartists’ meeting on Kennington Common. The specials were the butt of humorous barbs after it quickly became clear that there had been an overreaction to the revolutionary threat. Satirical representations of the special revealed the middle-class body as overly domesticated, ill-equipped for physical conflict and profoundly un-heroic. I demonstrate how at this stressful moment Punch’s supposedly respectable cartoons came to traffic with the vulgar humour of ballads, lithographed satires and theatrical depictions of the shamed specials and their phallic, but pathetic, gutta percha truncheons. Questions of the performance of race and gender through black face and cross-dressing are touched upon to consider how the special, and also the Chartists’, were belittled in popular culture at this time. In sum, this chapter offers a different reading of 1848, which is typically seen as a moment of triumph for order and property as the middle-classes sided with the police and government to prevent revolt.

Novelty fair

British visual culture between Chartism and the Great Exhibition

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