Humour through history

Humour through history

What tickled our ancestors’ ribs and tweaked their funnybones? A mixture of wit, wordplay, satire and vulgarity, says Nell Darby – just like today

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Have you heard the one about the British sense of humour? Throughout the centuries, our nation has found pleasure in all kinds of jokes and humour. Indeed, the habit of laughing at others, and at oneself, are seen as peculiarly British traits.

Politics has always influenced humour – particularly so with satire. Satire, the OED says, is a work that uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise immorality or foolishness, especially as a form of social or political commentary. In the early to mid 18th century, William Hogarth created satirical engravings such as ‘Gin Lane’ (1751), which warned about the effects of alcohol on poor Londoners. Although novelist Thackeray later referred to his works as the Hogarth comedies, they are actually rather dark and moral in subject matter. But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, artists such as Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and George Cruikshank gave their audience political and social satire mixed with a good dollop of humour. Rowlandson even caricatured himself, in a self-portrait from 1787, depicting himself as an overfed, overweight dandy.


Gillray directed a number of barbs against George III, drawing him as a miser and a man of limited intellect. He also took aim at political figures and – working during the French revolution – at the French. Cruikshank satirised the abolition movement, politicians and the royal family – and, as a result, was incredibly popular as a satirist, mocking every political party and every nation.

This satire played on people’s fears, by encouraging their nationalism and distrust of foreigners. Yet it also allowed criticism of political figures and royalty, questioning why they were in positions of power when they were fallible creatures. It broke down class barriers, drawing attention to the faults of the rich and famous and making them appear more like the average man or woman. In one Gillray caricature, the King, George III, is shown as Farmer George, toasting muffins while his queen fries sprats. In another, the king and his son, later George IV, are compared – the former for his miserliness, the latter for his lavish lifestyle – in a piece entitled ‘A Volumptary under the Horrors of Digestion and Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’. Such cartoons were a response to the news of the day, a form of gossip as well as of humour and of art; they reflected people’s attitude towards public figures and made them rather ordinary.

Despite the apocryphal statement of Queen Victoria – We are not amused – the Victorians also loved to be entertained. They went to music halls, burlesques and circuses, wanting to be entertained. Writers lampooned or burlesqued famous plays, creating amusing trifles – as The Graphic described one – for the enjoyment of theatre audiences. One such burlesque was applauded for its quaint touch of absurdity… punning lines and allusions of amazing ingenuity and unexpectedness, the dialogue a feast of fun… provided with amusing songs. (The Graphic, 9 November 1878)

Gin LaneGeorge IV
Left: Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, a social satire with a dark moral edge. Right: the Prince Regent, later George IV, was mocked by his contemporaries –here comic artist James Gillray – just as much as in ‘Blackadder’ in modern times

Humour was enjoyed, whether it was a joke uttered by a friend, a quip published in a newspaper, or a funny drawing. Just four years after Victorian became Queen, two of these formats started to be employed to good use when, in 1841, Punch magazine was established. Published weekly, it was the idea of Henry Mayhew, who would later write the series of Morning Chronicle articles detailing the lives of the London poor. Mayhew, with engraver Ebenezer Landells, had a lighter aim with Punch – named partly after Punch and Judy. It was to be a publication containing satire and humour, cartoons and humorous drawings. After a shaky start, and despite both Mayhew and Landells leaving the publication within a short time, Punch developed an audience among the literary intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic, including Charlotte Bronte and Emily Dickinson – even Victoria and Albert read it.

The Victorians clearly enjoyed wordplay. Punch, in 1863 had as one of its witticisms, A lover is a suer – an heiress-hunter a purse-suer; another periodical, entitled Fun, asked, Why are quacks like railway engines? Because there’s no getting on without puffing. (repeated in the Hampshire Advertiser, 26 December 1863). Wordplay was also appreciated:

cartoon by James Gillray
Another cartoon by James Gillray, from 1808, shows an elderly man who has slipped and fallen on the pavement, but saved his thermometer from breaking – the pratfall is a staple of humour down the ages

Why is ‘I’ the happiest of all the vowels? Because ‘I’ is in the midst of bliss, ‘E’ is in hell, and all the others are in purgatory. (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 16 January 1864)

But their humour was firmly rooted in their society, jokes reflecting contemporary concerns. So humour was found in capital punishment, in the role of women, in universal education. One joke made fun of the behaviour of married men:

A lady that would please herself in marrying was warned that her intended, although a good sort of a man, was very singular. Well, replied the lady, if he is very much unlike other men he is much more likely to be a good husband.(Hampshire Advertiser, 26 December 1863)

But another, the same year, made equal fun of married women as harridans:

A cross wife, like the bird of Minerva, does most of her hooting at night.(Hampshire Advertiser, 26 December 1863)

Women’s fashions were also ridiculed; just as George Cruikshank had mocked Regency fashions in 1818, in the 1850s and 1860s, crinolines were the object of fun:

George Cruikshank teases at crinolines
Fashion has always lent itself to mockery –here, by George Cruikshank in 1818 (Left), depicting women’s conical dresses (as opposed to the narrow clinging skirts of c1797-1815 ) and large bonnets and, for men, extremely tall cravats and narrow tails. Right, this 1857 cartoon teases at crinolines, and each age’s derision of the previous one

The age of a lady is now expressed according to the present style of skirts, by saying that eighteen springs have passed over her head.(Hampshire Advertiser, 26 December 1863)

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Victorian humour again emphasised nationalistic pride, while also reflecting internal politics. Between 1801 and 1922, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, yet Ireland was still seen as an ‘outsider’ by many. During the 19th century, many jokes depicted Britain as a nation of intellectuals – and at the same time depicted the Irish as uncouth and simple. In one magazine article of 1841, an ‘Irish waiter’ is the butt of jokes for not knowing what either a fork was – a split spoonas he refers to it – or soap and water, the implication being that he has never washed. The long, rambling joke refers to the Irishman as ‘Suds’ – a nickname after his ignorance about soap – and has his employer joking that he is like bad luck – everywhere. (The Odd Fellow, 2 January 1841) Other jokes mocked other countries and the past, thereby emphasising Britain’s status as a civilised, modern, nation: The good old times are very like Russia – more interesting to read about than pleasant to live in.(The Wrexham Advertiser, 1 July 1893).

Good jokes were appreciated; bad jokes groaned at, then as now. Punch, in 1872, lamented the current crop of jokes in a mock advert: Joke and funny story market: values of nearly all kind of yarns a shade lower. Quotations unchanged. Funny stories for export better than home trade. Practical-joke market much depressed, and sellers have been totally unable to find customers.(Punch, rpt in Manchester Times, 21 September 1872)

Mary Anne ‘Fanny’ StirlingMary Anne ‘Fanny’ Stirling and Mary Anderson
The Victorian comic performer Mary Anne ‘Fanny’ Stirling, pictured in an 1861 edition of the Illustrated London News and (inset) with the American born actress Mary Anderson

Comedians continued to thrive throughout the 19th century – a quick search of TheGenealogist website ( shows more than 1,000 people listing their profession as ‘comedian’ in the 1881 census. One of these was Mary Anne Stirling (1815-1895), known professionally as Fanny Stirling, who was listed as a comedian in the 1851-1881 censuses, although she had been working professionally since at least the early 1830s. She had started as a dancer and actress, but specialised in comedy. In later life, she played the comic character Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s play The Rivals – itself a popular comedy of manners from the Georgian era.

This continued popularity of Sheridan’s play into the late Victorian era and, in fact, to the present day shows how our sense of humour has, to an extent, stayed the same throughout the last couple of centuries. Comedy, jokes and humour were a way for our ancestors, from all classes, to have a laugh, to escape from a very class-conscious society. Humour was a way of subverting traditional roles, enabling workers to mock their employers, the rich, their husbands, their wives. It was a means of being politically involved, providing commentary about national and worldwide events, mocking political figures. This continued into the 20th century, with, in Edwardian times, Punch satirising the Suffragettes. In one cartoon, showing what would happen if women gained suffrage, an MP is depicted as a somewhat feminine figure, in dress and pantaloons, a top hat and unfinished knitting by his side. Entitled ‘The Angel in the House’, it was a reference to the mid-19th century poem by Coventry Patmore, depicting an idealised woman who is devoted to her family. The Suffragettes were seen to be subverting what it meant to be female, neglecting their ‘domestic’ role – and that possibility scared men. Caricaturing such women was a way of dealing with that fear of modernity and changing roles.

Today, humour is still used for the same reasons as our Georgian and Victorian ancestors used it – to deal with the unknown future, to cope with the present, to understand the past. It still deals with politics, race, family (including the mother-in-law), gender, just as it used to – and it can still be just plain silly… just as it used to be, too. Our ancestors weren’t so different from us, after all.

Punch cartoon poking fun at female suffrage
An 1884 Punch cartoon poking fun at female suffrage –or men’s reactions to it

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