The Failed Earl’s Court Spanish Exhibition (1889), or, the Benefits to the Author of Open-Access Publishing

A_editedLast October, as those of you who follow me on Twitter or know me IRL are probably all too aware (!), I was lucky enough to feature in the launch issue of the excellent new open-access journal from Liverpool University Press, Modern Languages Open. My essay, ‘A Tale of Two Empires? The Earl’s Court Spanish Exhibition, 1889,’ reconstructs the history of that failed and forgotten international exhibition by following its scattered trail through archives, newspapers, cartoons and memoirs. The essay’s main argument is that the exhibition’s (abysmal!) public reception helps us to understand how it suited certain sectors of the British population at that time – notably, businessmen and the press – to depict Spain not as the modern, forward-looking, economic partner that the organizers wanted to promote, but as a ‘fourth-rate power’ ripe for economic and industrial exploitation. Hence, lots of cartoons of talking Spanish onions and grumpy accounts of empty stalls and preposterous entertainments.

I loved working on this piece, and have continued thinking about it even after I submitted the final copy last summer, so I was thrilled when LUP emailed me last week to let me know that their stats showed the essay had been viewed more than 1300 times since it was uploaded in October (that breaks down as something like >20 views per day). Those of you who aren’t academic writers are probably wondering at this point why I am wasting valuable pixels on telling you this. Put it this way: I would not be surprised if the sum total of all the readers of all the articles I have published since 2002 was somewhere less than 1300.  As I said on Twitter,

And that’s especially true if you’re able to work with a venue like MLO, which is committed to offering real financial support to authors who can’t meet the article processing costs.

As for the rest of this blog post – well, the news from LUP has inspired me to take advantage of another benefit of open-access publishing, which is the opportunity to keep a piece alive through the in-built interactivity of the platform itself. Since submitting my piece on the Exhibition last summer, I’ve been keeping an eye out for new information, which is increasing all the time with the expansion of online web resources – above all, the fabulous British Newspaper Archive. Want to know what I found? Read on…

The Spanish Exhibition, One Year On

The Earl’s Court Spanish Exhibition closed to the public in early November 1889, but it left a stinky trail in its wake. Within weeks, the Exhibition’s secretary, Sir Harry Paul Burrard, Bart., had been hauled very publicly through the London bankruptcy courts, laying the blame for his trouble squarely at the Exhibition’s door when he claimed in court that ‘if the Spanish Exhibition had proved a success, he would have been able to pay his creditors in full’ (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 15 Dec. 1889: 8). The following month, the Exhibition’s press representative Thomas Burnside (now working for Barnum and Bailey) was up at Brompton County Court, found liable by the judge for almost £18 worth of goods he owed to a Liverpool tailor – that’s about £1000 in today’s money (Liverpool Mercury, 14 Jan. 1890: 6). Another six months on, and one Dick Radclyffe of High Holborn, a representative of the curiously invisible Exhibition Syndicate, found himself up at the Westminster County Court charged with failure to pay the gentleman who had supplied the ‘figures and costumes’ for the ‘Gipsy’s Cave’ at the Spanish Exhibition (the report in The Era is intriguingly headlined EXHIBITION GYPSIES). Radclyffe’s argument that the order was made on behalf of the syndicate cut no ice with the judge, who found for the plaintiff (The Era, 21 Jun. 1890: 15).

It wasn’t just elite Exhibition employees who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. In November 1889 one Mary Ann Burkin, ‘who had been employed as a washer at the Spanish Exhibition,’ was brought up at the West London Police Court on a charge of failing to pay for a trip on a District Railway train. Burkin claimed the ticket inspector had ‘”rounded” upon her because she would not listen to his proposals,’ but she was found guilty and fined the not inconsiderable sum of 20 shillings (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 10 Nov. 1889: 8). Burkin’s fare evasion, however, was the least of the District Railway Company‘s problems. The company’s half-year report for Jun-Dec 1889 showed a drop in profits of more than £4000, which, they declared, was ‘wholly due to the limited attractions of the Spanish Exhibition’. Underlining this, the directors referred shareholders to the figures for the corresponding half of 1888 (when the Italian, Danish and Irish Exhibitions took place at the same venue), which had showed a profit of more than £13,000 (Liverpool Mercury, 14 Feb. 1890: 8).

If the Exhibition had quickly become associated in the public mind with financial incontinence, its criminal associations were no less striking. It is hardly surprising that a series of petty crimes – mostly thefts, the occasional assault – were reported during the Exhibition itself. But in the months afterwards, the Exhibition emerged as a colourful backdrop to a series of widely-reported sentimental crimes. In March 1890, ‘a very prepossessing young person named Kate Gould, of Epsom’ brought a suit for breach of promise against a young man called ‘Mr Horace Walpole Ingrim, a godson of Lord Orford’. Apparently Horace had taken a shine to Kate while she was working as a barmaid at a Kingston hotel, and after a long romance conducted in secret (because he was afraid of losing his allowance from Lord Orford), ‘in July [1889] they went together to the Spanish Exhibition, when the defendant proposed to her and was accepted’. Shortly after this, Horace appears to have got cold feet and disappeared, whereby Kate took him to court, where his ‘voluminous correspondence of a tender and poetical character’ was read out to great amusement. The court found in Kate’s favour and she was awarded £190 in damages. Horace’s response is not recorded (Dundee Courier [and others], 5 Mar. 1890: 3). In April, a rather less romantic case was reported when Louisa Peters and Henry Millington were brought up at the Old Bailey for theft of £250 from Peters’ husband, whom she had met at the Spanish Exhibition. As the cuckolded Arthur Peters testified,

I knew my wife was a fast woman – in August last year I met her at the Spanish Exhibition, and went to her lodgings, and slept with her the same night – that was my first knowledge of her.

More than a year later, the Exhibition played a part in a sentimental court case of a rather less amusing nature. A 39 year old man called Newton was charged with the abduction – today, we would probably also say ‘grooming’ – of Lucy Newman, the young daughter of a tobacconist whom he had met when she was ten and seduced four years later. Among the correspondence read out in court was a letter from Lucy to ‘my dear Teddy … Written at the Spanish Exhibition, Wednesday 12th June [1889]’ (Western Times, 3 Sep. 1891: 4). The court was sympathetic, Newton was jailed for just six months, and the pair married seven years later.*

But it was not all doom and gloom. For many of the performers on the various Exhibition stages, participation was a valuable notch on the CV, as we can see from the classified columns of the theatrical weekly The Era in the months after the Exhibition’s closure. For example, an advert for Wright and Palmer’s Silver Banjo Band – ‘recipients of Gold Medals on their 100th Performance at the Spanish Exhibition’ – includes verbatim a letter of recommendation from Vincent Applin, the Exhibition’s in-house manager, whose – truth be told – lukewarm platitudes barely merit the agency’s invitation to consult the original at their offices (The Era, 2 Nov. 1889: 22). Similarly, ‘Tregetour, the greatest Juggler-Shadowist on the boards’ based his advert around the claim that he had been ‘presented with the Spanish Exhibition gold medal and clasp on behalf of Colonel North, for distinguished services’ (The Era, 26 Nov. 1889: 26).

The Exhibition also left a trail in the cultural sphere. Gilbert and Sullivan’s last major collaboration, The Gondoliers, premiered in December 1889 with a distinctly Spanish flavour, and although I’ve not yet been able to find any evidence of a direct connection, I can’t imagine they were unaffected by all the talk of Spain in London as they wrote the show during the summer of 1889.** Less well known musicians also benefited from the public profile they gained during the Exhibition. For example, in November 1889, the London Music Publishing Company put out a piano arrangement of ‘The Iron Duke March,’ by Maggie M King, which ‘frequenters of the Spanish Exhibition will remember … made a favourable impression when played by the band of the Grenadier Guards’. As an added bonus, the piano score had ‘a very good portrait of the hero of Waterloo’ on the cover (The Graphic, 23 Nov. 1889: 17).  Dan Godfrey, jr. – leader of the aforementioned band – also got some hits out of the Exhibition, including ‘Christina,’ a valse espagnole.

John_Thomas_NorthAnd what of the exhibits themselves? We already know that some pottery and sconces ended up in the Pitt-Rivers collection, but the trail of others has gone cold. Many must have been dispersed to the provinces. For example, a passing mention in a Sussex newspaper tells us that at the Bazaar and grand Venetian fete due to take place at the Royal Concert Hall, St Leonards, in aid of the East Sussex, Hastings, and St Leonards Hospital, ‘Mrs Ebden and her colleague will have for disposal … a quantity of pottery from THE LATE SPANISH EXHIBITION’ (Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 7 Dec. 1889: 3; capitals in the original). Others, perhaps unsurprisingly, found their way into the collections of the organizers. The Exhibition’s Vice-President, the notorious ‘Nitrate King’ Colonel JT North (right), had been strikingly absent from the Exhibition itself, but that did not mean he did not take advantage of what it had to offer. When in the autumn of 1890, members of the Primrose League‘s Vansittart (Greenwich) Habitation visited his home at Avery Hill, Eltham, they were treated to a grand tour of the ‘palatial residence,’ which included ‘a statue gallery of red marble, containing many works from the Spanish Exhibition’ (Morning Post, 19 Sep. 1890: 2).

Perhaps the most poignant echo of the Spanish Exhibition, however, is that recorded almost exactly a year after the closure of the original, in the small Surrey village of Godstone. A correspondent to the Surrey Mirror noted with horror that:

The tranquillity of this little village has been disturbed of late by a hideous noise proceeding from the yard of a public-house in the main street. A show, which is known as “The Spanish Exhibition,” and which itinerates the country, has halted in this village. The exhibition represents the portraying of Spanish bull-fights, and beyond amusing a few children, is considered a nuisance (Surrey Mirror, 18 Oct. 1890: 7).

It is ironic that this touring show, while using the name of the Spanish Exhibition, picked up on the one thing – bullfights – that the original was unable to include. Did it bring a flavour of Spain to audiences keen for their own glimpse of last year’s big news, or was it just an attempt to make money out of a drink and a bit of a fight? Either way, it shows us that even a year after closing, the Spanish Exhibition still had its place – a controversial, debased place, for sure, but a place nonetheless – in the British public imagination.


* Edward Newton, age 45, and Edith Lucy [sic] Pearman, age 23, married by licence at St Mary’s Church in Wimbledon on 29th September, 1898.

**My investigations have turned up nothing, but surely some G&S scholar, somewhere, has looked into this.


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