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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2007, 11:54 GMT
Victorian comic's gag book found
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education

Victorian police
Victorian policemen were mocked for rough tactics
The discovery of a Victorian comedian's private joke book is providing a rare insight into the gags being told to audiences 150 years ago.

The book containing the handwritten record of jokes used by a circus clown, Tom Lawrence, is a direct link to the comedy performed under the big top in circuses touring English towns in the 1850s.

These Victorian stand-ups, dressed in the "grotesque and gorgeous" outfits of a clown, delivered jokes about useless husbands and bad-tempered wives, violent policemen, railway crashes and the hardships faced by the poor.

The book was uncovered by Dr Anne Featherstone, a lecturer in performance history at the University of Manchester, who recognised it as a rare surviving example of a working comedian's catalogue of material.

The notebook holds about 200 jokes, monologues and routines - with one version heavily thumbed and another "good" copy, presumably as a back-up.

"His working copy was probably kept at the side of the ring - he might have looked up and seen an audience full of soldiers and sailors and checked what jokes would be appropriate," says Dr Featherstone.

Bad husbands

What made the Victorians laugh? They seemed to like clever word-play and punning, says Dr Featherstone. For example: "Bad husbands are like bad coals - they smoke, they go out, and they don't keep the pot boiling."

Victorian jokes on stage
Victorian gags are to be performed by drama students in Blackpool

Or "What's the difference between a rowing boat and Joan of Arc? One is made of wood and the other is Maid of Orleans."

"Women were always the butt of jokes in the 19th Century and policemen too, as they represented authority, and they were shown as lazy, eating pies in the kitchen," says Dr Featherstone.

There were also jokes about the tough times facing the poor - and how the bosses took advantage.

"It's mostly gentle humour - but some of the misogynistic stuff is quite vicious. There's one where he says 'Have you seen my girlfriend's bonnet, I gave her that? Have you seen her jacket, I gave her that. Have you seen her eyes? Yes, they were both black. And the clown says - yes, I gave her those'."

As an example of how the clown saw marriage in the 1850s, there was this comic poem:

"You know I'm very fond of the ladies - I say bless those wives that fill our lives, With little bees and honey, They ease life's shocks, they mend our socks - But can't they spend the money."

'Batter your sconce'

The rough tactics of the police were under attack in this rhyme:

"This town is paraded with policemen in blue, They carry a mighty big staff and make use of it too. They batter your sconce in for pleasure, In the station house poke you for fun, They take all your money and treasure - And fine you five bob when they've done!"

Victorian railway
There were topical jokes about trains and railway crashes

There were also topical jokes - such as mocking the expensive hangers-on around Queen Victoria.

This was the age when the railways were spreading across the country - and train crashes were grabbing public attention. Confusion of this new technology was reflected in the jokes.

Tom: Did you hear of that accident today? Three men run over by a railway train?
Ringmaster: Killed?
Tom: No, they were saved by a miracle - the train was going over the bridge and they were going under it.

Drama students are going to perform a selection of the Victorian jokes to a modern audience in Blackpool on Thursday. And they had to get used to delivering these more "wordy" types of jokes, says Dr Featherstone.

The delivery couldn't be the same quick-fire, aggressive style of contemporary comedy, she says, the jokes had to be told in a way that was about enjoying the language itself.

The joke book records that some of the gags were from earlier comedians - and some of the monologues could be much older, passed on within an oral tradition.

There's one, full of riddles and wordplay that sounds like something delivered by a Shakespearean fool:

"Those are nice boots: they say the man that's up to his knees in leather is up to his neck in debt. I hope that's not the case with you. Why don't you have your boots made of tripe, so when you have worn out the bottoms, you can eat the tops.

"I think I shall start in the boot and shoe line. If I do I shall make my boots and shoes out of a new material - I shall make the tops of the skin of a drunkard's throat and make the soles of old women's tongues - because the skin of a drunkard's throat will never admit water, and an old woman's tongue will never wear out."

It's the way he told them.




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