Roistering high society of 19th century Britain

By Keith Newbery

Friday, February 14, 2014


THIS ISLAND LIFE IT'S easy to run away with the idea sexual shenanigans among our elders and betters were invented in the Sixties by the likes of John Profumo and Princess Margaret.

Such behaviour had been going on for centuries, of course, but the truth is we only started to hear about it when Britain had become a far less deferential country in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The Sixties, especially, ushered in a more impudent generation and its attitude was reflected by some national newspapers, which were gradually shamed into reporting on the Establishment rather than remaining a cosy and complicit part of it.

By all accounts, the rarefied level of English society was a roistering place in the 19th century. Boudoir floors were regularly littered with discarded frock coats and crumpled foundation garments as Victorian gentlemen belied their joyless reputation and went about their concupiscent business — sometimes with their own wives.

Their role model was Victoria’s troublesome second son, Bertie, later to become King Edward VII, who filled in the 60 years between being born and waiting for his mother to die by turning eating, drinking and philandering into his preferred lifestyle.

He got away with it, of course, because English newspaper editors of the time looked the other way and snuffled disapprovingly into their port.

Yet there were some, especially among the serving classes, who witnessed the old rascal’s excesses at close hand and among them was a young lad named Harry Guy.

He was born into the working-class hardship of Cowes in the mid-19th century, before going on to establish an engineering business with his father, which came to be greatly respected by the sailing fraternity who visited the town.

But as an 18 year old, Harry spent several weeks as a launch driver-cum-lackey on a steam launch owned by Sir Allen Young and among the guests was the Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VII).

Harry recalled his experiences with the royal gadabout in a book he wrote towards the end of his life, entitled Memories of a Cowes-born Lad, which was published in 1932 with a limited circulation, mostly among friends and family.

Island author Brian Greening was asked to revisit the original publication and add some clarification and historical context to many of the incidents mentioned therein.

He said: "That Harry Guy would have seen many things he would have had to keep quiet about while in the company of these 'aristocratic’ people and their guests is entirely believable — a fact he alludes to in his book several times.

"The Prince of Wales had several very public affairs during his lifetime, one being with the actress Lily Langtry, which began in 1877.

"It was while on Sir Allen Young’s yacht at Cowes in May of that year he allegedly arranged for the prince to sit next to this lady while her husband was placed at the other end of the table.

"The future king was so smitten by Lily, he had a house built for her at Bournemouth. This timescale would have coincided with Harry’s story and it is possible on a particular trip to Torquay he did see things the rest of the world would have given a great deal of money to have known about.

"But only Harry knew the truth and he took the answers to his grave."

Memories of a Cowes-born Lad, a fascinating snapshot of life among the working-class in Cowes at the end of the Victorian age, is available from the County Press Shop next month and is priced £10. Profits will be donated to the IW branch of the Parkinson’s UK society.

A backside 720 was the start of meltdown

IN these dreary, cricketless days, it’s any sporting port in a storm, which is why I found myself watching the women’s slopestyle snowboarding from Sochi last Sunday.

For those unfamiliar with this latest Olympic sport, it’s like watching young ladies of surpassing loveliness and no little courage throwing themselves down the side of a snow-covered mountain with their feet attached to an ironing-board.

The commentary was provided by a couple of hysterics called Ed Leigh and Tim Warwood, who immediately caught my attention with the observation that "Aimee Fuller is laying down a backside 720."

Seconds later, Aimee and her backside were laying down a groove in the snow as she careered head-first into oblivion.

It was an early warning that while this sport is not for the faint-hearted, neither is the commentary which accompanies it.

One young lady was accused of making "a great melon grab", while another was said to have had "a little tickle on the tail".

Ed (or was it Tim?) described one competitor’s fretful reaction to a failed mid-air manoeuvre as: "When she came off that rail, she was, like, eughh, I’ve got slugs in my knickers."

It was all so unlike the venerable expositions once delivered by our own dear David Vine and Alan Weeks.

I managed to retain my composure when informed a particular Finnish maiden "tweaks and pulls everything" but when Tim (or was it Ed?) summed up one slow-motion sequence with the words "that’s called poking or boning", I had to go and lie down in a darkened room.

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