[My Chamber of Textile Thoughts. No: X | By Viveka Hansen]
Follow the young Swedish traveller, J P Bager, as he walks through the streets of København and Hamburg en route for London – the home of more than a million people and the greatest centre of trade in the world. He also visited Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Hull during his journey in the late summer of 1840. The Victorian Age was in its infancy and the well-oiled machinery of England’s prospering industries was bringing a new era of finance and trade to the expanding empire. Textile observations were also present in his travel journal, for example one can read about; how his accommodation in a private home was furnished, the fashion traders in central London, his glimpse of Queen Victoria, the Polytechnic Institute on Regent Street, cotton spinning mills in Manchester and the Cloth Hall in Leeds. My aims with this “Textile Thought” are to introduce Bager’s unique account and give a couple of quotes from a textile point of view.
Johan Peter Bager (1818-1888) was born in Malmö, which was then a small city on the edge of northern Europe. He was the son of a privileged family of merchants, when he was between the ages of five and thirteen his family could afford to send him to the Moravian United Brethren school in Kristiansfeld, Denmark. An education that was to leave its mark in the form of a philosophy that was firmly fixed in the preachings of the liberalism. Bager’s travels – at the age of 22 – through a Europe, on the threshold of dramatic change, showed him the power and opportunities of industrialism and thereby introduced him to the vision of capitalism. Despite the enthusiasm of youth, Bager also reflected on the potential negative aspects to both the environment and mankind.
On his return to Sweden he became deeply involved in local and national politics and worked hard to promote the building of a new infrastructure based on shipping and rail transport. On his earlier travels, he left a country that was vacillating between cottage industries and farming on the one hand, and industrialism on the other. From here he travelled to a Europe, more particularly England, where speed, innovation and a new approach was the order of the day.
Already during his second day in London (29th August) he noticed the busy central streets; ‘A Considerable obstacle for making headway on the streets is, more than the swarming crowds of people, through which one quickly learns to negotiate on the excellent wide pavements, the seductively inviting and constantly beautiful and tastefully varied boutiques… In these windows one can see either a lady or a proud man, made of wax, dressed in the most fashionable clothes, hats, millinery and other adornments so several people can inspect from all sides as they slowly wander around. The owners of houses with such exhibitions are mostly perfumery or fashion traders… But how would it be possible to count all these unusual curiosities that are displayed in the countless London boutiques that in multifarious ways attract the attention and interests of strangers and tempt them to buy, and with constantly changing ingenuity for speculation and capricious fashion, they bring fourth new items.’
A couple of days later (5th September) which he dedicated to studying industry and prospering innovations; ‘…in the splendour of Regent Street, the Polytechnic Institute; where I would liked to have arrived earlier and spent a whole day. Indeed, one could easily spend a few days with great interest… Having passed through a large hall, in which I saw how material is woven from glass and silk: how ribbons and lace are woven by machines without the help of the human hand…’ Bager seemed to be overwhelmed with all new impressions and after several pages of detailed descriptions he concluded with; ‘Observers of the development of life in Europe, reflect upon the constant and gigantic steps of the English. Not only with respect to new discoveries and improvements but also their genius for exploiting them in business, and to the advantage of the nation, its standing and wealth. Their nationalistic fervour for the prosperity of science and art and the dissemination of general knowledge. At six o’clock it was announced that the doors were closing.’
Another observation which includes textiles; takes us to Manchester (15 September) where Bager had arranged to visit one of the largest cotton spinning mills in the area. His journal reads; ‘No fewer than 1,400 people are employed here and in 16 great workshops a large number of spinning machines are employed, and the wonderful mechanical devices seem to make the employment of human labour almost unnecessary. One single spinning machine now performs work that was formerly done by hand by one to two hundred people and it is run by only one person… In the printing works of Messrs Heald Wilson & Co it was interesting to see the precision of the printing. The material is sent from the upper floor and runs through a number of rollers, each of which prints a particular colour and façonné and when it leaves the last pair of rollers it appears ready printed.’
There is much more to explore in the book Impressions of London from the Late Summer of 1840 – covering the full account of his journey – describing clothing, social history, trade, industry, travelling, etc. The book is both an enjoyable travel account to read and a quite unknown primary source from the very early Victorian era.
Johan Peter Bager’s original travel account was published in English 2001 as a full transcript Impressions of London from the Late Summer of 1840. The book is still in print and can be purchased online from the publisher: The IK Foundation & Company’s Shop
[SOURCE: Bager, J P, Impressions of London from the Late Summer of 1840, London & Whitby 2001).
PLEASE REFERENCE AS FOLLOWS:
- Hansen, Viveka, ‘Forgotten Victorian Textile Observations’, TEXTILIS (November 7, 2013); http://textilis.net/ (Accessed: Day/Month/Year)
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