Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Mrs Partington and her mop: Victorian meme

Left (click to enlarge) [Hutchison, William] 1820-1905 :Dame Partington and her mop. No. 44. Whitaker (loq) - I don't think you can manage it. Atkinson - I can mop up the water as well as you've mopped up the land. The "Wellington Advertiser" supplement [8 July 1882]. Reference Number: A-095-042. Reproduced with permission of National Library of New Zealand.

Wayland Wordsmith just mentioned an anecdote of East Devon interest: the story of Dame Partington. This, first told by the cleric and author Sydney Smith in 1831, is a clone of one version of the Canute story, telling of an elderly Sidmouth lady who tried in vain to keep back the encroaching waves during the storm surge of the 1824 'Great Storm'.

"I do not mean to be disrespectful but the attempt of the Lords to stop the progress of reform reminds me very forcibly of the great storm of Sidmouth and of the conduct of the excellent Mrs Partington on that occasion.

"In the winter of 1824, there set in a great flood upon that town - the tide rose to an incredible height - the waves rushed in upon the houses, and everything was threatened with destruction. In the midst of this sublime and terrible storm, Dame Partington, who lived upon the beach, was seen at the door of her house with mop and pattens, trundling her mop, squeezing out the sea water and vigorously punching away the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic was roused.

"Mrs Partington's spirit was up; but I need not tell you that the contest was unequal. The Atlantic Ocean beat Mrs Partington. She was excellent with a slop or a puddle, but she should not have meddled with a tempest."

The context is intereresting. The Rev. Smith's speech, delivered in Taunton in October 1831, was in support of the Reform Bill, whose aim was to reform the corrupt British electoral system of the time, particularly in its undemocratic domination by aristocratic landowners, many operating "rotten boroughs" with a tiny electorate. Smith was speaking at a particularly inflamed time that was seeing rioting after the second attempt to pass the Reform Bill , despite decisive support in the House of Commons, had been blocked by the House of Lords.

To be honest, I'm mildly doubtful of the particulars of the story - Smith's speech seems to be the first account of Mrs Partington - but it was a highly effective parable. The Bodleian Library collection has contemporary prints by "HB" (John Doyle) - the 1831 Dame Partington and the ocean (of reform) and the 1840 Mrs Partington and her mop - both depicting the Duke of Wellington, a noted opponent of reform, as Dame Partington.

The idea went viral, and continued for decades, Mrs Partington and her mop making an outing whenever the unstoppability of causes was being argued: there are currently 3670 hits in Google Books for Partington mop, and a number of other pictorial examples are findable online.

Mrs Partington got to California in 1856, in a "Letter sheet illustration showing satirical sentiments on the opponents of the 1856 Vigilance Committee, San Francisco" (California State Library record / detail). HarpWeek has other political examples: "Tidal Waves" (Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, October 17, 1868) where Mrs Partington is Democratic presidential nominee Horatio Seymour; "Mrs. Partington Hancock Struggling with the Republican Tide" (Thure de Thulstrup, Harper's Weekly, October 30, 1880), showing Democratic presidential nominee Winfield Hancock; and "Our Mrs. Partingtons and the Democratic Ocean" (Charles Jay Budd, Harper's Weekly, November 2, 1912), showing various Republicans attempting to sweep back the sea in the form of Woodrow Wilson.

Nor was it all US politics. The Wellington Advertiser, 8 July 1882, Dame Partington and her mop, showed Sir Harry Atkinson, Colonial Treasure (ie Minister of Finance) of New Zealand; and the Women's Library has nice examples of Mrs Partington in England trying to sweep back the tide of suffrage: this poster from c.1909, Mrs Partington, Coming in with the tide indeed I'll soon stop their tide! (detail) and a postcard from 1910, showing "The New Mrs Partington (of the Anti Suffrage Society)" (detail).

A footnote in the 1856 Wit and Wisdom of the Rev. Sydney Smith (ed. Evert Augustus Duyckinck, 1856) does raise the question of the original Mrs Partington's existence:

Did Sydney Smith invent Mrs. Partington? A communication in Notes and Queries (Nov. 16, 1850), may seem to establish Mrs. Partington as a real personage, but the evidence is not conclusive. The writer says, the original Mrs. P. was a respectable old lady, living at Sidmouth, in Devonshire, and her encounter with the ocean, when mop and broom failed, and she was driven to take refuge in the second story of her cottage on the beach, occurred, to the best of his recollection, during an awful storm in November, 1824, when some fifty or sixty ships were lost at Plymouth. He well recollects, he adds, reading in the Devonshire newspapers of the time *, an account of Mrs. Partington; but he may have read only Smith's speech, which he wrongly ascribes to Lord Brougham.

Mrs. Partington has acquired additional celebrity by the pleasant sayings in the vein of Mrs. Malaprop, which have been widely scattered over the world, in the newspapers. This peculiar pleasantry, a humourous dislocation of the English language, with grotesque associations of ideas, has had various imitators; but the original American Mrs. Partington owes her graces to Mr. B. P. Shillaber, for several years associated with the Boston Post, in which tho genuine sayings arc recorded. They were collected into a volume in 1854, with the title, "The Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington, and others of the Family."
- page 316, Wit and Wisdom of the Rev. Sydney Smith

* I can add to this that I can find no sign in the 19th Century British Library Newspapers archive of a reference to Mrs Partington before Sydney Smith's 1831 speech. Still, whether she existed or not, it was a durable meme.

There are some detailed contemporary accounts of Sidmouth in the Great Storm, neither of which mention Mrs Partington.


The great storm of 23rd November, 1824, did much damage to Sidmouth. Bishop Kestell Cornish has forwarded us a manuscript from a diary of a relative of his which will be perused with interest, and Mr. J. Y. Anderson Morshead has sent us the account of the same storm by the late Peter Orlando Hutchinson from his manuscript History of Sidmouth.

Extract from an old diary, November 23rd, 1824:—

"A violent storm all night, quite a Hurricane! I never heard any-thing at all like it! The whole House shook, and our beds were rocked under us, as if they had felt the shock of an Earthquake! . . . (Nov. 24.) A most aweful scene presented itself to us this morning! Such a storm has not been Witnessed in the memory of man! . . . The sea poured in last night, and has very nearly destroyed the whole of the houses in front of it! The water came up as high as Harris'. The grocers, and people were taken out of their beds at night and conveyed in Boats to a place of Shelter: Everyone has lost something, and some poor people Every thing: never was there such a scene of devastation! All the Cottages under the Cliff were washed away: The Beach Walk is entirely destroyed, and covered with Shingle. Wallis' library is nearly knocked to pieces: and old Chit Rock, that gave its character to the Coast Scenery, is thrown down and nothing but its base remains. The rising of the sea was so sudden, that it almost appears to have been the effect of an earthquake! No language can describe the sad and desolate appearance which the Beach now presents, and the poor sufferers walking about, drenched in water, hardly knowing where to go or what to do, is enough to break one's heart

"A Subscription has been entered into, and £300 has been already subscribed, which I hope will relieve them in some degree. Tho' it is the poor Tradespeople and those above the reach of Common Charity that will suffer most. We have been spared any of the effects of this aweful visitation, with the exception of a few Trees, and Slates blown off the House we have lost little or nothing. . . .

"I never was more frightened in my life than during the night. I almost expected the House to have fallen down. ... It was impossible to sleep. ... I can hardly attempt to describe my feelings. . . . The noise of the wind was like incessant Thunder, but there was something in it still more aweful and supernatural. It seemed to rage so perfectly without controul—so wild and free— that nothing I ever heard before could be at all compared to it."

From P. 0. Hutchinson's History, vol. iii 146 :—

"The Chet-rock stood near the S. end of the reef. It was about 40 f high, much beloved by the fishermen as on steering in it was the first mark they made. Annually one of them was crowned as its king. At low tide he & his court marched out & scrambled to its top where they waved their caps, cheered, & drank to the King of diet (including the King of England) in smuggled brandy. Along the reef extended a labyrinth of stakes & nets called the 'Ram's horn.' At 8 a.m. on Tuesday, 22nd November the glass stood at 29-49. It was new moon, & the tide high at 11.45 a.m. The afternoon was fine & calm but freshened towards evening & the glass sank to 28.25. Mr. Stone, grocer Market place had a party, but it began to rain & blow from S.W. so that he offered them shake-downs. But they bundled on old shawls &c and left. There was only rainwater in the street then. So many slates were blown off he could not sleep & at 4 a.m. found his ground-floor full of water to the knees. He began clearing the shop but the enemy reached his armpits & washed papers off the mantelpiece. J. Pile, ironmonger (now Selleks) in Fore St saw it full of water & a door wash past. A bag of nails was rusted into a solid mass. Mrs Mogridge 7 York Terrace found boats &c battering her wall, & bored through a partition into No. 6 for escape. Lodgers at Mr. Pursey's (Canister house) were much distressed. A sick lady had to be taken from a warm bed into a wet boat. The York was much injured. Mr. Hall draper (now Fields) saw sailors row across the Market-place & rescue ladies from (Pepperells) opposite. The cottagers under Clifton-place escaped to the top 10 min. before the houses were washed away. Wallis Library (now the Bedford Hotel) had its Billiard-table broken ag(ain)st the fire-place, & a piano washed into the sitting room. The children were lowered into a drifting boat at the back by blankets—one by mistake into the water, of which he informed them in loud tones. May (gardener) saw it flow up to High St (now Veales) where it was met by a land-flood & a boat rowed up Old & round into New Fore St. The landlord of the London Hotel saw a specially big wave about 5 a.m. burst in the door of the chemist (now Penberthys) sweep round the shop & reappear laden with bottles & pill-boxes. Edmondson of Bond St had opened a shop for costly silks in Marine-place & the bales were found all over the town next day. Mr. Yeates at dawn dragged himself by the railings to the beach, & to his dismay Chet-rock was no longer to be seen. The familiar old mass had been knocked over in the night. Fragments lay about on the reef for two years after. A subscription of £3000 was raised for the sufferers of which Honiton gave the noble sum of £600.

"I only arrived in Jan. 1825 but the most beautiful watering place of England looked still like a bombarded city. A cart was backed against Marlborough place & men were shovelling pebbles out of the windows into it. A naval officer said the wind was stronger than W. Indian hurricanes. The effects long remained. The shrinkage of population (as shown by Registrar's return) & of popularity were due partly to the growth of Torquay, but more to this catastrophe. Depression weighed on our trade for 40 years till it slowly began to revive about 1865. Mr. Hubert Cornish's view of the Rock is inaccurate. It was more like Great-picket."

- page 101, Devonshire Association, Report and Transactions, Volume 35, Sidmouth, July 1903.

- Ray

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