Phrenology, public speaking and other such punishments

V0011105 Credit: Wellcome Library, London Franz Joseph Gall leading a discussion on phrenology with five colleagues, among his extensive collection of skulls and model heads. Coloured etching by T. Rowlandson, 1808. 1808 By: Thomas Rowlandson
V0011105 Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Franz Joseph Gall leading a discussion on phrenology with five colleagues, among his extensive collection of skulls and model heads. Coloured etching by T. Rowlandson, 1808.

I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who once said

Progress is impossible without change.

(Thanks Google – If I’d had to recall something from memory all I had was Sheryl Crow’s A change would do you good – looking forward to my PhD Viva!).

So, as you have no doubt noticed, I found myself this week giving this blog a radical overhaul. I have recently been giving talks, of which more later, and getting more hits on the blog and although I loved the clean, uncomplicated styling I had before I needed to make the content more easily accessible. I hope you like it, any feedback/suggestions are more than welcome. The idea is that everything is now more available (the Right hand sidebar has previous blogs, category tags, search and even my Twitter – which I finally joined!). Also, you may have noticed the top menu with different pages entitled  ‘What’, ‘Why’, ‘Talks’ etc. Believe it or not, these have always been there but were hidden and I realised no-one has probably ever known that. So, welcome to the new site, complete with far more easily accessible information than before. Including a page with all my talks – and where possible the audio/video links to them.

On the subject of talks, I attended Professor James Sharpe’s talk for the BBC History weekend at York’s Temple Anderson Hall (thanks to fellow PhD’er Katie Ward for the tip off). Entitled ‘Why did we stop punishing Criminals in Public’, it was a fascinating overview of the long lead up to the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act, that saw execution move behind the prison wall.


I was pleased to see someone as esteemed as Professor Sharpe, beginning to question the overly simplistic narrative of civilisation. For regular readers of the blog you will know that the ‘civilisation’ narrative was first fully expounded by Sociologist Norbert Elias and it has been adopted by many studies of criminal history since, to describe why public punishments came to an end. The idea being, very simply, that the move was in line with other changing traits in European society such as the increase of things as small as dining manners. So public punishments became increasingly abhorrent to this more mannered and respectable society.

However, as I pointed out in a question after the talk, in relation to public punishment and execution these theories rely on predominantly middle class, moralistic accounts (most notably the newspapers). We have very little, if any historical record of people’s motivations for attending these public whippings, floggings, executions. Of the few I have uncovered in the North East, what you begin to see is that our understanding of the execution crowd has been hugely simplified by buying the newspapers report wholesale.

Then there is the fact that the execution crowds, if anything, grew at the very same time that people were supposedly increasingly abhorring these public spectacles. In the mid c19th in London, as in Newcastle, executions drew vast crowds and of all classes (one only needs to look at Dickens/Thackeray’s accounts to see that this is not just a day out for the labouring poor). The fact that the middling classes believed their attendance was for a more enlightened purpose than the labouring classes is a sidenote. Both were there and in great numbers.

I purchased a copy of his book afterwards, A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England and even got it signed. I am really enjoying it and if the history of criminality, execution or violence is your thing then I suggest getting it on your Christmas wish list.


So, having been to a great talk, I then spent the rest of the week preparing for mine at Newcastle’s Live Theatre on Sunday. I had been invited to talk about pseudoscience in the c19th, as part of a post-show talk for the hugely entertaining Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing. The event was very enjoyable, after I’d got over the tremendous nerves (we were talking on stage under the bright lights and came on from backstage – added to the pre-talk terrors). The talk was recorded, so I have included it below. It’s worth listening the whole way through, if you have the time, as the other two speakers (Dr Ella Dzelzainis and Pat Beesley) are great and there is a particularly fiery question from the audience towards the end.

I know questions split academics/PhD’ers. Some people fear them and some people like them. I am in the latter, I enjoy being challenged and (as you’ll hear) if I don’t know something I say as much. I have learnt over time that it is better to be honest and accept your failings, than to pretend you know something you don’t (you only need to watch the Apprentice to know bluffers are fools). I also have a theory on post talk questions which splits them into three distinct categories and it fitted for this talk.

1). The long winded questions where someone is effectively telling you what they know about the subject – these are the hardest to answer, other than to say “very good point.”

2). The question where the person hasn’t quite understood what the talk was about, but thought they’d chip in anyway.

3). The genuinely interesting question, which makes you think “oh bugger, that’s another thing I need to consider before I submit my thesis.”

As I am writing this I remember Professor Sharpe saying “good question” to me- oh dear!

Listen in to the talk and see if you can guess which question is which.


title_wide_bannerLong term comedy partner and occasional friend/drinking partner Sean McKenna got bored with Hot Gulp doing nothing and decided to write a radio series about a fictional, mythical abbatoir. I was lucky enough to be asked to do an appalling estimation of a Northern accent in it. Enjoy.


Couldn’t resist a song this week and stumbled on this little beauty from Stewart Lee. I’m always loathe to put Stewart Lee links in because, although I am a big fan, I generally find people who say they love him are the worst types of snobbish, hipsters (such as all my closest friends). Anyway, I am a huge folky and loved this little piece he did on one of his TV series.

If you’re too lazy to watch, but are an annoying snobbish hipster that just wants to claim you love Stewart Lee then here are some of the best lines.

In the Indian jungle clearing, P-Diddy is rapping

In the Indian jungle clearing David Baddiel is clapping


Katy Perry rides in on an elephant’s back

don’t you ever wonder if you might still be on smack.

Oh go on then, one more. Saved the best for last

We’re detritus blowing through the final human age

Cause we’re dirty stains on history’s final page

And if a comet came and killed the lot of us

In the scheme of things, it would be no great loss…..Jonathan Ross.

Since writing this, I have been listening to Stewart Lee’s cover of Steve Earle’s Galway girl. The song perhaps needs the context of the comedy routine before it, but I haven’t got the inclination or the time to give it – so just enjoy it as a beautiful rendition and if you want to know why the words stray from the original you’ll have to do a bit of research.

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